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What is embalming? (en español)

Embalming is a process that is used to temporarily inhibit the decomposition process. The embalming process is invasive (see below for description) and involves the use of formaldehyde, a toxic chemical that has been shown to cause higher rates of certain types of cancer in workers who perform embalming. 

Are there alternatives to formaldehyde-based embalming?

Yes!  Refrigeration is an effective method to temporarily inhibit the decomposition process and it is safe and eco-friendly.  Make sure to select a funeral home that offers refrigeration as an alternative to embalming.   

Another option is to request embalming with Enigma, an eco-friendly embalming agent.

If you are having a home funeral, you can use dry ice to temporarily preserve the body.  It is effective and the cost is minimal.  

Before choosing to embalm for yourself or a loved one, consider the following important facts: 


  • Eliminating this service can save you hundreds of dollars. 

  • Embalming is RARELY required by law. The Federal Trade Commission and many state regulators require that funeral directors inform consumers that embalming is not required except in certain special cases.  For example, California requires embalming when a body is shipped by common carrier; however, there is also the wording  "A dead body, which cannot be embalmed or is in a state of decomposition, shall be received for transportation by a common carrier if the body is placed in an airtight metal casket enclosed in a strong transportation case or in a sound casket enclosed in an airtight metal or metal-lined transportation case."  So, if there is a reason embalming cannot occur there are other options. Under the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule, a funeral provider:

      - may not provide embalming services without permission.
      - may not falsely state that embalming is required by law
      - must disclose in writing that embalming is not required by law, except in certain

        special cases.
      - may not charge a fee for unauthorized embalming unless embalming is required by

        state law (California requires embalming when a body is shipped by common

      - must disclose in writing that you usually have the right to choose a disposition, such

        as direct cremation or direct burial, that does not require embalming if you do not

        want this service.
      - must disclose in writing that some funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with

        viewing, may make embalming a practical necessity and, if so, a required purchase.

        (There are funeral homes that will refrigerate instead of embalming in the case of a


  • Embalming provides no public health benefit, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Canadian health authorities. In fact, Hawaii and Ontario forbid embalming if the person died of certain contagious diseases. Many morticians have been taught, however, that embalming protects the public health, and they continue to perpetuate this myth.

  • Embalming gives funeral homes a sales opportunity to increase consumer spending (by as much as $3,000 or more) for additional body preparation, a more expensive casket with "protective" features perhaps, a more expensive outer burial container, and a more elaborate series of ceremonies.    

  • Refrigeration is an alternative to maintain a body while awaiting a funeral service or when there is a delay in making arrangements. Not all funeral homes have refrigeration facilities, so check ahead.  Most hospitals have refrigeration.

  • Private or home viewing by family members and close friends can occur without embalming and is far more "traditional" than some of the services promoted by the industry under that name.

  • Embalming does not preserve the human body forever; it merely delays the inevitable and natural consequences of death. There is some variation in the rate of decomposition, depending on the strength of the chemicals and methods used, and the humidity and temperature of the final resting place.

  • Ambient temperature has more effect on the decomposition process than the time elapsed after death, whether or not a body has been embalmed. In a sealed casket in above-ground entombment in a warm climate, a body will decompose very rapidly.

  • Embalming is a physically invasive process in which special devices are implanted, and chemicals and techniques are used to give an appearance of restful repose. The normal waxy-white color of a dead body is replaced with a more life-like tone by the use of dyes in the embalming fluid.

  • Embalming uses formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical. Embalmers are required by OSHA to wear a respirator and full-body covering while embalming. Funeral home effluent, however, is not regulated, and waste is flushed into the common sewer system or septic tank.

  • The National Toxicology Program lists formaldehyde as "known to be a carcinogen."

  • Several NCI studies have found that anatomists and embalmers – people who are potentially exposed to formaldehyde in their professions – are at an increased risk of leukemia, and some studies have suggested an increased risk of brain cancer as well. An NCI study looking at more than 25,000 workers potentially exposed to formaldehyde found an increased risk of death due to lymphoma and leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia. 

  • Embalming has no roots in the Christian religion and is common only in the U.S. and Canada. Embalming is considered a desecration of the body by orthodox Jewish and Muslim religions. Hindus and Buddhists choosing cremation have no need for embalming.

  • While some people may be comforted by "a beautiful memory picture," as it's called in the trade, 32% of consumers reported that viewing was a negative experience, according to a 1990 survey.

The Embalming Process:

  • The body is placed on a stainless steel or porcelain table, then washed with a germicide-insecticide-olfactant. The insides of the nose and mouth are swabbed with the solution.

  • Rigor mortis (stiffness) is relieved by massage. (Rarely but sometimes, tendons and muscles are cut in order to place the body in a more natural pose if limbs are distorted by disease, e.g., arthritis.)

  • Massage cream is worked into the face and hands to keep the skin soft and pliable.

  • Facial features are set by putting cotton in the nose, eye caps below the eyelids, a mouth formed in the mouth (cotton or gauze in the throat to absorb purging fluids). The mouth is then tied shut with wire or sutures. (Glue may be used on the eyelids and lips to keep them closed in an appropriate pose.) Facial hair is shaved if necessary.

  • Arterial embalming is begun by injecting embalming fluid into an artery while the blood is drained from a nearby vein or from the heart. The two gallons or so needed is usually a mixture of formaldehyde or other chemical and water. In the case of certain cancers, some diabetic conditions, or because of the drugs used prior to death (where body deterioration has already begun), a stronger or "waterless" solution is likely to be used for better body preservation. Chemicals are also injected by syringe into other areas of the body.

  • The second part of the embalming process is called cavity embalming. A trocar — a long, pointed, metal tube attached to a suction hose — is inserted close to the navel. The embalmer uses it to puncture the stomach, bladder, large intestines, and lungs. Gas and fluids are withdrawn before "cavity fluid" (a stronger mix of formaldehyde) is injected into the torso.

  • The anus and vagina may be packed with cotton or gauze to prevent seepage if necessary. (A close-fitting plastic garment may also be used.)

  • Incisions and holes made in the body are sewn closed or filled with trocar "buttons." The body is washed again and dried.

  • Nails are manicured, any missing facial features are molded from wax, head hair is styled, and makeup is used on the face and hands. The body is dressed and placed in the casket (fingers are glued together if necessary).

How much does embalming cost?

The cost of embalming, dressing, and cosmetology are generally covered under one charge and the cost varies considerably.  Our recent funeral price survey indicated prices can vary by up to 160%.  The actual prices ranged from $495 to $1290.  

Sheltering and refrigeration of a body for up to 3 days (generally enough time to plan services) can vary from no charge to a few hundred dollars.  

See our price survey for prices in your area.  



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  2. Coggon D, Harris EC, Poole J, Palmer KT. Extended follow-up of a cohort of British chemical workers exposed to formaldehyde. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2003; 95:1608–1615.

  3. Hauptmann M, Lubin JH, Stewart PA, Hayes RB, Blair A. Mortality from lymphohematopoietic malignancies among workers in formaldehyde industries. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2003;95:1615–1623.

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  5. Hauptmann M, Stewart PA, Lubin JH, et al. Mortality from lymphohematopoietic malignancies and brain cancer among embalmers exposed to formaldehyde. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2009;101:1696-708.

  6. International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Volume 88: Formaldehyde, 2-Butoxyethanol and 1-tert-Butoxypropan-2-ol. 2006. Accessed at on May 11, 2010.

  7. Pinkerton LE, Hein MJ, Stayner LT. Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to formaldehyde: An update. Occup Environ Med. 2004;61:193–200.

  8. US Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Formaldehyde. 2011. Accessed at on June 13, 2011.

  9. US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation. Report to Congress on Indoor Air Quality, Volume II: Assessment and Control of Indoor Air Pollution, 1989.

  10. Zhang L, Tang X, Rothman N, et al. Occupational exposure to formaldehyde, hematotoxicity, and leukemia-specific chromosome changes in cultured myeloid progenitor cells. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2010;19:80-88

  11. Iserson, Kenneth, M.D., Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? 199

  12. Mitford, Jessica, The American Way of Death Revisited, 1998

  13. Carlson, Lisa, Caring for the Dead—Your Final Act of Love, 1998

  14. Roberts, Darryl, Profits of Death, 1997

  15. FUNERALS: Consumers' Last Rights by the Editors of Consumer Reports, 1977

  16. American Attitudes and Values Affected by Death and Deathcare Services commissioned by the Allied Industry Joint Committee, prepared by the Wirthlin Group, 1990.


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