If you have a question regarding embalming, please email me. Remember, the only dumb question is the unasked one, so...no, actually there are dumb questions, so please try and keep your question(s) halfway intelligent.
Why do we need embalming?
The purpose of embalming is to preserve a dead human body from natural decomposition and to also restore a natural appearance. It is required whenever a body will be presented at a public viewing, when a body must be held without refrigeration, or whenever a body will be shipped on an airline. Embalming, along with other restorative techniques, can restore a body that has been ravaged by disease, decomposition, trauma, etc. to a more familiar and pleasing appearance. Also, embalming provides some safety benefit to the public as it significantly disinfects a body.
What happens if the body isn't embalmed?
Immediately upon death, various enzymes and bacteria, such as clostridium perfringens, begin to break down a corpse. Many of these bacteria produce toxins that break down tissue and gasses that cause extreme swelling. Very delicate skin and open "sores" called skin slip develops. Refrigeration slows down this process as does embalming, so the sooner the embalming is done, the better. Embalming chemicals work to kill these bacteria and arrest the enzymes.
Formaldehyde is used because it coagulates protein (what muscle and skin are made of), making the protein firm and more sturdy. Formaldehyde is also a powerful disinfectant.
Do they remove the internal organs?
No. If the internal organs are removed it is done if the body is autopsied by the medical examiner. It's actually a lot more work for an embalmer to embalm an autopsied or "posted" case (posted = post mortem examination), because he or she cannot use the circulatory system as normal. The embalmer would have to inject each arm, each leg, and the head separately and then treat and pack the empty torso and abdomen.
How long does embalming last?
Even if perfectly embalmed, every body will sooner or later decompose. How soon depends on the quality of embalming, burial container, burial location (such as mausoleum or in-ground).
One funeral director I know exhumed a body 5 years after it was buried. The remains were well preserved except for some mold growing on the face. However, if given enough time, these remains will eventually break down.
Placing the casket in an aboveground mausoleum accelerates the decomposition process, including the production of decomposition gasses, due to the summertime heat. Because of this, there is much debate about "sealer caskets," caskets that have a rubber gasket around the lid. According to Batesville Casket Company, their "Monoseal" casket keeps out moisture and vermin while allowing decomposition gasses to escape. However, there are stories of some caskets actually exploding due to the buildup of these gases. This article gives a little better insight into this disturbing subject.
Some of you may be wondering about Lenin and Stalin, bodies of Russian leaders who have been kept for decades without decay. These bodies were regularly given "refresher" treatments and kept in a very controlled environment. But, they too someday will most likely deteriorate.
I want to become an embalmer. Where do I go for more information?
If you live in the United States, visit this website: "Complete List of Accredited Mortuary Schools" - The site contains information for mortuary schools throughout the United States. You can also try US College Search for listings by state. For more specific information, contact one or more of the mortuary schools listed. If you live in the United Kingdom, visit the British Institute of Embalmers and click on "Education" for a list of accredited embalming tutors.
Where do you practise embalming?
I do not practise embalming. I have never been to mortuary school. The information on this website is the result of research including videos, reading, and speaking with funeral industry professionals.
My family and I were horrified when we saw our loved one in the casket. What can we do?
You should first speak with the embalmer who worked on your loved one. Do not be afraid to ask questions. They should have the answer to just about anything you ask. Although not required, many embalmers make and keep embalming logs that detail the condition of the body before, during, and after embalming as well as procedures and chemicals used. If something seems shady, then contact the state's funeral service board - all states (to my knowledge) have one. They can help you if you feel there was negligence on the part of the embalmer.
How bad can a body look and still be restored to a natural appearance?
Much of it depends on the skill of the embalmer. Also you cannot expect embalmers to be miracle workers. I was told by one embalmer that at least 2/3 of a face needs to be intact in order to do an accurate restoration. Things such as edema (swelling caused by fluids) can be reduced and even elliminated by chemicals and procedures. Even many burned and decomposed cases can be restored.