The Embalming Process
Written By: S.P.
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
When a loved one passes, many of us opt for a viewing of the deceased within an open casket. This is done in order for the loved ones to obtain a sense of closure. It has also been proven that holding a wake and seeing your loved one one last time in a state of peace greatly aids in the grieving process. Yet for this to happen many measures have to be taken in order to assure that the body is presentable and, most importantly, that the safety of the public is upheld. Most of us are familiar with the term embalming. We generally know that a body is embalmed for preservation purposes and to delay decomposition. But what really happens during this process? If this question has ever crossed your mind, you’ve stumbled upon the right article. We’re going to take you on a trip from the embalming lab to the viewing room.
A Brief History of the Embalming Process
Modern embalming was first applied in the United states during the Civil war era. The high demand for preserving bodies was due to the necessity of returning the bodies of fallen soldiers’ home to their families. At this time, embalming was a very rudimentary science and has since developed into an art form as well as a science.
What exactly is embalming?
Firstly, in order to understand embalming, one must have a basic understanding of human anatomy, namely, the vascular system. The vascular system is comprised of arteries and veins that connect to the heart and expand throughout the entire body. With each heartbeat, blood is distributed via these vessels and the blood nourishes the cells and tissues of the body by transporting oxygen and other essential nutrients. In the process of embalming this vascular system is used in order to distribute the preservation fluid to all parts of the body. To gain access to this crucial network of vessels, one or multiple arteries and veins need to be accessible and exposed to the embalmer. The most common vessels used are the common carotid artery and the femoral artery and they are used in tandem with their neighboring veins. The carotid is located near the base of the neck above the clavicle and the femoral arteries are found near the groin area. These vessels are commonly used because of their large caliber and their position which allows for a fairly equal distribution of fluid. With a small incision and basic knowledge of where specific vessels are located, the embalmer will have no issue retrieving these structures.
Step one: hygiene, hygiene and more hygiene!
The first step in the embalming process is always a thorough disinfection and sanitization of the work space and of course, the body. The body is washed with a disinfectant soap and the orifices (i.e. mouth, nostrils, ears and eyes) are also disinfected with a special orifice solution. After this is done, the embalmer must choose a method of sealing the mouth shut. The two most common methods are the needle injector, which pierces the bones of the mandible and maxilla (jaw bones) with a needle attached to metallic wires. After the mouth is manually shut, the wires are attached on the top and bottom, keeping the mouth in place. This however is not ideal if the deceased is elderly seeing that the bones will be more frail and might break upon such an abrupt puncture. The second method is done with a needle and thread. The mouth is sewed shut and the cord is rendered invisible because the embalmer carefully sutures the mouth on the inside by utilizing the gum area and the nasal septum. The use of cotton or a putty may be used inside the mouth to give a more voluminous appearance if needed. Eye caps with little sharp points will be inserted under the eyelids in order to keep the eyes shut and give them a natural shape (when we die our eyes recede due to gravity and dehydration).
The magical concoction
Once this step is thoroughly executed, the embalmer will begin with the arterial injection. Contrary to popular belief, there is not one magical fluid that is used for all cases! Most people associate the embalming fluid with formaldehyde. While this chemical is an essential element in the mixture, it is certainly not the only one. Depending on several factors such as the age, weight and cause of death, no one arterial solution will be the same. It is the job of the embalmer to determine which properties would best suit each particular body. If the body is very emaciated and dehydrated due to an illness, for example, the embalmer will opt for a fluid with a low concentration of formaldehyde. This is because the higher the concentration, the more dehydrating the effects will be. There is much more math and chemistry that goes into the decision making process…but we won’t bore you with all that scientific jargon.
Next, after the solution and quantity of solution has been determined, it’s time to start injecting. As previously mentioned, the arteries are raised. The fluid is injected into the arteries and the blood will expel from the veins. If a fluid enters, the pressure will naturally cause the blood to be pushed out. This step is crucial and must be carefully monitored at all times by the embalmer. The embalmer may need to massage certain areas of the body to facilitate distribution and diffusion of the fluid into the capillaries and tissues. Once the diffusion starts to occur, it is incredible to see the instantaneous change. Veins will begin to swell, the color will start to resemble a more life-like hue and the tissues will plump up.
Once the injection is completed and the tissues are thoroughly imbibed with preservation fluid, it is time to move onto preserving the organs. To gain access to the organs within the thoracic abdominal cavities, an instrument called a trocar is used. A trocar resembled a large hollow needle. It is first inserted into the abdomen through a small incision and it then pierces each organ. Suction is used initially to aspirate the contents of the viscera. The heart will contain blood, the bladder will contain urine, the stomach undigested food etc. All of which must be removed. Once the contents of the viscera are evacuated, using the same incision, the embalmer will now insert cavity preservation fluid into each organ.
After all this is done, it is time to suture any incisions that have been made and make sure that they are sealed solidly so that no leakage will occur. Finally, the deceased is dressed, and made up with cosmetics. Once the deceased is placed in the casket, they are ready for viewing. This entire process varies due to different circumstances, but in general, a standard embalming is likely to take about two to three hours. And now you know what goes on behind the scenes!
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