Have you ever wondered what the association is between Formaldehyde and the embalming process? Many people are aware that this chemical is regularly used by undertakers to prepare a body before a funeral takes place but have you ever questioned why? And what exactly is the embalming process?
The process of embalming has a long history and can be traced back to Ancient Egypt when bodies were preserved by a process called ‘Mummification’. First the body of a deceased person was washed with wine and rinsed with water, then the internal organs would be carefully removed through a small hole at the side of the body. This was important as the internal organs are the first to decompose in a deceased person.
The Ancient Egyptians used to leave the heart intact as they believed this was the seat of intelligence and that a person would need their heart for the Afterlife. The brains were then pulled out via the nostrils and then the body was stuffed and covered with a carbonate salt known as ‘natron’ which helped to dry out the body by drawing out the remaining liquids.
The body was left like this for 40 days after which time it was once again rinsed and covered in sweet-smelling oils to soften the skin and act as a fragrance. In early times, the dehydrated internal organs used to be placed in an individual special storage jar known as a ‘canopic jar’. There were four different types of lid each representing an Egyptian God which would look after one of the internal organs. For example, the Egyptian God ‘Imsety’ looked after the liver in the Afterlife.
In later times, the internal organs were not stored in jars but were carefully wrapped in cloth and returned to the body which was stuffed with leaves, sawdust and cloth so that it appeared lifelike. The body was rubbed with oils one last time before being wrapped in linen cloth. This completed the process of Mummification.
Today’s undertakers and morticians preserve the body of a deceased person in a similar way by cleansing, sanitising and preserving with chemicals so that it appears lifelike. This is an important consideration for family and friends who wish to pay their last respects to a deceased person. Bodily fluids are drained away and embalming fluid is injected into the arteries of the deceased. Many undertakers believe that Formaldehyde is the perfect product for fixation and short-term preservation of a body because it renders a body life-like, with a good natural colour and without odour.
However, there are concerns about the safety of Formaldehye and the fact that it is classified as a Class 1 Carcinogen. Nontheless, the relationship between Formaldehyde and the embalming process remains very strong. Other substances are available but they are considered by many to be less effective and are often more expensive.
Modern-day embalmers use a mixture of Formaldehyde and other less toxic chemicals together with water. Formaldehyde is used in a concentration of about 5% to replace blood in the body whilst a concentration of around 50% is used for the body cavity. Many funeral parlours have started to address potential safety risks and have installed air extraction systems. Some embalmers use respirators and nitrile rather than latex gloves in their work.
And just in case this article is giving you any ideas, just be warned – embalmers require a licence to practice in almost every state and country the world over. Theirs is a highly respected profession with stringent requirements for moral conduct, non-judgement and respectability. Practical and theoretical examinations must be undertaken before membership can be gained to a respected organisation such as The British Institute of Embalmers. Dignity, sensitivity and respect remain at the heart of this time-honoured profession.