Save Me


Historical Preservation?

Embalm, v.: To cheat vegetation by locking up the gases upon which it feeds.
By embalming their dead and thereby deranging the natural balance between animal and vegetable life,
the Egyptians made their once fertile and populous country barren and incapable of supporting more than a meagre crew.
The modern metallic burial casket is a step in the same direction, and many a dead man who ought now to be ornamenting his neighbour's lawn as a tree,
or enriching his table as a bunch of radishes, is doomed to a long inutility.
We shall get him after awhile if we are spared, but in the meantime the violet and the rose are languishing for a nibble at his
glutæus maximus.

- Ambrose Bierce


The practice of embalming has existed since early history throughout many lands and cultures.  In the United States, the vast majority of bodies are embalmed, yet few people understand how and why.  Embalming disinfects, temporarily preserves and restores, to an acceptable physical appearance, a dead human body.  As human remains begin to decompose almost immediately after death, thereby offering an ideal environment for microbial growth, untreated remains pose a public health concern.

While embalming sanitizes the body, it also retards decomposition, thereby temporarily preserving the body.  In view of America's highly mobile society, embalming permits friends and family to travel great distances, often several days after a death, to attend the funeral ceremony and allows the body to be buried at some place other than where death occurred.  Additionally, embalming restores the body to an acceptable physical appearance for viewing following a traumatic death or devastating illness.

Certain religious beliefs may prohibit embalming or place restrictions on its practice.

The Embalming Process

The embalming process begins with the thorough washing and disinfection of the body.  The mouth, nose and other openings are sanitized and closed to prevent excretions which could be a source of disease or infection.  Embalming chemicals are then injected into the body through one or more accessible arteries, while body fluids are drained through corresponding veins.  Embalming chemicals kill bacteria and temporarily preserve the body by altering the physical structure of the body's proteins.  A latticework of inert, firm protein is created that can no longer serve as a host for bacteria or be acted upon by enzymes.  Thus the decomposition process is retarded and the body is sanitized and temporarily preserved.

Legal Matters

Embalming is not routinely required by law, but may be necessary if death is due to certain diseases; if final disposition is not made within a prescribed period of time; if refrigeration or immediate burial is not available; or if a body is to be transported between states or internationally in a common carrier.  Some states require embalming for transportation within the state, beyond the place where death occurred.  Funeral directors may require embalming if the funeral ceremony selected by a family includes viewing and are generally required to ask permission of the deceased's next-of-kin verbally or in writing before embalming.  A funeral director can explain specific laws, policies or circumstances that influence decisions regarding embalming.

Source: The Web

Putting the Formaldehyde Standard to Work at Your Funeral Home

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas commonly known as a preservative in medical laboratories and mortuaries.  Formaldehyde is also found in other products such as chemicals, particle board, household products, glues, permanent press fabrics, paper product coatings, fiberboard and plywood.  It is also widely used as an industrial fungicide, germicide and disinfectant.  Most funeral directors are familiar with the term formalin.  Formalin is a chemical mixture containing 37 to 50% formaldehyde and 6 to 15% alcohol stabilizer.  Chemicals used for preparation and embalming procedures today do not contain such a high percentage of formaldehyde.

Hygiene protection, eye/face wash, quick drench shower, housekeeping and emergency procedures are all required work practice procedures that must be implemented at your funeral home where there is a regulated formaldehyde area.  These procedures will help you prepare for unseen emergencies that can occur while working with formaldehyde.  Training is required for these procedures before your employees begin using formaldehyde in the workplace or enter into a formaldehyde regulated area.  If, after training has been completed, you make any changes to the procedures, purchase new equipment and/or hire a new employee, you must implement the updated procedures and retrain all employees.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) plays a big part in these procedures.  That is why it is so important to have the proper required PPE on hand at all times.  Respirators may be required for emergencies.  If you use a respirator for emergencies only (because it is not required due to control of low and maintained formaldehyde permissible exposure limits), you must follow the Respiratory Protection Program.  Hygiene protection is one of the most neglected requirements of this standard.  During inspections, a large number of formaldehyde-regulated areas fail to pass due to funeral home owner and/or employee either not knowing the requirements, being given wrong information or possessing an attitude of "I will do it my way."  Many formaldehyde-regulated areas do not have the proper (or have no) eye/face wash and/or drench shower.

Listed below are some of the problems regarding eye/face wash and drench showers:

bulletRegulated area may have eye/face wash but not drench shower
bulletEye/face wash and/or drench shower is/are hand held
bulletHome shower is used for a drench shower
bulletNot one-motion operated
bulletNot clear of obstacles
bulletDevice used for hanging dirty PPE
bulletNot inspected as required
bulletWhen turned on, dirty water with particles and/or oil build up comes out
bulletPressure is low
bulletOne eyewash head releases more water than the other
bulletHot water is the only source of water used
bulletCold water is the only source of water used
bulletDrench shower handle is too high for the employee(s) to reach
bulletEyewash is attached to a sink that is used for decontaminated instruments and equipment
bulletEmployees have not been trained to use equipment

For operations involving formaldehyde liquids or gas, the employer shall conduct a program to detect leaks and spills, including regular visual inspections.

bulletThe embalming machine is the most-used formaldehyde-contained source in the funeral home.  The embalming machine and all attachments must be inspected while in use to make sure that an unforeseen leak and/or spill has not occurred.  Containers that store or hold formaldehyde-contaminated items must be inspected for leaks and spills.  These inspection procedures must be written down and implemented as part of standard training.

Preventative maintenance of equipment, including surveys for leaks, shall be undertaken at regular intervals.

bulletThe embalming machine and all attachments must be inspected at the time of cleaning or immediately before use to make sure all attachments attach properly; the hose does not have any cracks; that no leaks or spills will occur while using the needed equipment; and that the equipment is in proper working condition.  These inspection procedures must be written down and implement them as part of standard training.
bulletIn work areas where spillage may occur, the employer shall make provisions to contain the spill, to decontaminate the work area, and to dispose of the waste.  These inspection procedures must be written down and implemented as part of standard training.
bulletThe employer shall assure that all leaks are repaired and spills are cleaned promptly by employees wearing suitable protective equipment and trained in proper methods for cleanup and decontamination.
bulletLeaks must be properly repaired immediately before reuse and must be documented.  Protective equipment will vary from the size of the leak and/or spill.


bulletIf several cases of embalming solution stored in a flammable storage cabinet and the cabinet is turned over, PPE and a respirator is required as if embalming.  Is the employee who will handle the spill trained and does he or she meet the requirements for wearing a respirator?
bulletIf a 16-ounce bottle of embalming solution is spilled or if a very small leak occurs, the required PPE must be worn as if you were embalming.  These procedures must be documented and implemented in any training program as part of the standard.
bulletAlways train employees for the worst-case scenario regarding spill and/or leak cleanup and decontamination.


Success in the use of any embalming fluid depends largely on manipulation, an important part of the process being the thorough removal of fluid from the circulatory system before undertaking the injection of the embalming liquid.

Solution zinc chloride 1 gallon
Solution sodium chloride 6 ounces to pint 6 pints
Solution mercury bichloride 1 ounce to pint 4 pints
Alcohol 4 pints
Carbolic Acid (pure) 8 ounces
Glycerine 24 fl ounces

Mix the glycerine and carbolic acid, then all of the other ingredients when a clear solution of three gallons results which is the proper amount for a body weighing 150 pounds.

Arsenious acid 100 parts
Sodium hydrate 50 parts

Carbolic acid and water of each a sufficient quantity.  Dissolve the arsenious acid and the soda in 140 parts of water with the aid of heat.  When the solution is cold drop carbolic acid into it until it becomes opalescent, and finally add water until the finished product measures 700 parts.

Salicylic acid 4 drachms
Boric acid 5 drachms
Potassium carbonate 1 drachm
Oil of cinnamon 3 drachms
Oil of cloves 3 drachms
Glycerine 5 ounces
Alcohol 12 ounces
Hot water 12 ounces

Dissolve the first three ingredients in the water and glycerine, the oils in the alcohol and mix the solutions.

Thymol 15 grains
Alcohol ½ ounce
Glycerine 10 ounces
Water 5 ounces
Cooking salt 500 parts
Alum 750 parts
Arsenious acid 350 parts
Zinc chloride 120 parts
Mercury chloride 90 parts
Formaldehyde solution 40% 6,000 parts
Water up to 24,000 parts
Arsenious acid 360 grains
Mercuric chloride 1 ¼ ounces
Alcohol 9 ounces
Solution carbolic acid 5% 120 ounces

From 10 to 12 pints are injected into the carotid artery - at first slowly and afterward at intervals of from 15 to 30 minutes.

Source: The above recipe for embalming fluid and directions for its use (such as they are) came from a program I picked up when I went to an exhibit at City Gallery in Wellington.  The exhibition was called room for error by Australian artist Susan Norrie and was held 9 November 93 - 13 Feb 94.  The above recipe is detail from Model Seven 1993.  I presume it's the real thing.  To see a copy of the original recipe, click here.  I assume one of the reasons the exhibit was called room for error is because, with the above directions being so sketchy, a few errors just might be made before you figure out what the heck the writer had in mind.

I put this article in this section on the environment because I personally feel the environment would be better served if bodies were not embalmed (nor encased in anything more than a cardboard box or flannel blanket), but were allowed to "melt" into the soil.  (See several articles in the section on ageing and beyond, Older and Under, for more on the topic of the non-spiritual possibilities that exist for the body after death.  These include funerals, jerky, popsicles, fertiliser, ashes, orbit or dust...)

bulletBeing Dead and in a Good Mood - covers plastination and mummification.
bulletBones and Bugs - " keeping air out, a sealed casket (in anything but the most frigid weather) becomes a crock-pot that is likely to turn the body into a smelly stew, whether it's embalmed or not..."  This page also includes articles on common garden burial, being eaten by dogs and vultures, scattering ashes and advertisements on tombstones.
bulletRelatively Dead - articles advocating and criticising cryonics.
bulletModern Interment Decoration - covers unusual caskets, fun funerals, funerals online and cruises for the dead wherein the cruise ship crew "will provide opportunities for those who suffer the loss of a loved one to connect with their friends and relatives in the afterlife with the help of reputable mediums and psychics..."
bulletYearning for Immortality - articles on terra cotta soldiers, tombs for the wealthy and a poem about futility.

Embalming Toxins

by Nathan Welton

If laid out head to toe, every person buried last year in the United States would form a line stretching from Los Angeles to New York City.  Since Britain’s low-impact “green burial” methods (see “Dust to Dust,” Currents, November/December 1998) have yet to catch on in the US, most of these bodies are embalmed with formaldehyde, placed in caskets made of toxic heavy metals, and buried in cemeteries kept pristine with herbicides and pesticides.  While our burial practices may intuitively seem environmentally unsound, the science behind the subject is shaky since nobody has made an extensive study of cemetery pollution in the US.

Thanks to the stubborn ways of the funeral industry, Canada and the US are the only two nations that regularly practice the ancient art of embalming.  The process coagulates the body’s proteins, raising major pollution concerns among eco-burial advocates.  But the toxic evidence is ambiguous.  John Konofes, director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa, has found that embalming fluids have contaminated groundwater near Civil War cemeteries.  But these fluids were based on arsenic, which has been out of use since the early 1900s.  Formalin, a 37% solution of formaldehyde in water, became the new standard.

But Formalin isn’t exactly safe.  In the early 1980s, the National Cancer Institute reported that anatomists and embalmers were at a significantly higher risk for leukemia and brain cancer.  The Environmental Protection Agency listed formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen in 1987.  Despite that ruling, each year the funeral industry buries 350 thousand gallons of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is at least safer than arsenic, which Richard Laursen, a chemistry professor at Boston University, says doesn’t break down in the environment.  He adds that formaldehyde will evaporate out of embalming fluid and poses little threat to water supplies.  “I would say there isn’t any [formaldehyde in cemetery land],” says Laursen.

Embalming is by no means the public health necessity the funeral industry implies.  The National Funeral Directors Association website offers this self-serving tidbit: “As human remains begin to decompose almost immediately after death... untreated remains pose a public health concern.”  But “diseases die when we die,” says Marion Grau, former director of Canada’s green burial-oriented Memorial Society.  “People say, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to have AIDS in groundwater,’ but that doesn’t happen.”

Source: The Environment Magazine

For pages on natural disasters - including lightning strikes, volcanoes, floods, global warming and more - as well as satellite photos and some great pictures of trees, clicking the "Up" button immediately below takes you to the Table of Contents page for this Environment section.

Back Home Up Next