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What is embalming?

Last reviewed 27th November 2023
5 min read

When a loved one passes away there are many decisions to make, and one of those decisions is whether you want your loved one to be embalmed. The embalming process is a common practice, but many people aren’t sure what it involves or whether it's a suitable option. We have put together this guide to explain exactly what the embalming process is and answer any questions you may have, allowing you to make an informed decision regarding your loved one.

Embalming involves using special preservatives and solutions to slow down a body’s natural deterioration. This means a recently passed loved one remains in a healthier-looking condition for a longer period of time. Embalming can make an open-casket funeral and seeing the loved one for the last time easier, as the process will leave them looking natural, restful and at peace.

It should be noted that this article will contain details and information about how the embalming process works. If you have a loved one who has recently passed this information may be upsetting, and we advise you to only keep reading if you feel comfortable.

What is the embalming process?

The embalming process involves the removal of a body’s natural fluids, which are replaced with embalming fluids (chemicals and natural oils) to help preserve them for longer. There are two types of embalming processes that are practised widely today: arterial embalming and cavity embalming. The arterial process involves blood being removed from the arterial system and replaced with embalming fluids. Cavity embalming is the removal of fluids inside the chest and abdomen and replacement with embalming fluids.

Before and after the process the body will be washed, and during the process it will be gently massaged to relax the muscles and encourage the embalming fluids to do their work. After this process they’re then groomed and dressed according to the family’s desires, ready for the funeral service.

Why might someone choose embalming?

People choose to have their loved ones embalmed for many reasons, mainly for the reason of preservation, so that a loved one remains natural and healthy-looking over a long period of time. This can be useful for arranging a funeral, as there can sometimes be a delay, meaning there is a longer period of time for family and friends to pay their respects. It also gives family and friends living abroad a chance to travel longer distances and still see their loved one before the funeral service.

The embalming process also helps restore a loved one’s appearance, meaning they can appear at peace and restful, even if they passed after a period of illness. This can bring great comfort to family and friends, offering them closure as they say goodbye to their loved one and celebrate their life.

Finally, if the loved one who has recently passed is to be repatriated abroad then it is a legal requirement that the body be embalmed. This is not only mandatory but likely beneficial to the family waiting back home. If a family member has passed abroad, then you might not know how long it will take to get their body home or what conditions they will be stored in. The embalming process increases the chance that they will be well preserved by the time they arrive back home.

Why might someone choose not to embalm?

There are several reasons a family might choose not to embalm their loved one. If a family has decided to have a closed casket for the funeral for example, they may decide it is not worth the additional expense of embalming. While for some it can be helpful to be with the body of the deceased for closure, many prefer for their final memories with their loved one to be when they were alive. In these cases where the wider family choose not to view the body, embalming may not be needed.

Some people choose not to embalm for environmental reasons, especially if they are opting for a natural burial. This is because chemicals used in the embalming process can be harmful to the environment when they body decomposes. Natural burial sites will usually specify that bodies cannot be embalmed. Even if not opting for an eco-friendly burial, many like the idea of the process being as natural as possible.

Finally, some religions such as Judaism and Islam explicitly prohibit embalming, except in cases where it is required by law.

How embalming affects funeral arrangements

Choosing to have a loved one embalmed is a decision you may need to consider when planning a funeral service. In this section we will look at how embalming affects aspects of arranging a funeral, and answer any questions that you may have.

Can a loved one be buried without being embalmed?

In the UK embalming is not required by law for a burial, meaning that the decision is a purely personal one. Indeed, the main purpose of the embalming process is to ensure that a loved one remains how you remember them when they’re visible in the casket, not when the casket is buried.

Choosing not to embalm means that you may have a shorter timespan to pay respects to your loved one, as the time window for seeing them will be much shorter without embalming.

It should also be noted that if you are looking to have an eco-friendly or woodland funeral then embalming is explicitly not allowed, as the chemical solutions used could disturb the natural environment.

Can a loved one be embalmed before cremation?

Much like a burial, embalming is not a legal requirement for cremation and is a purely personal choice on behalf of the family. However, also like a burial, a family may wish to embalm the person to prolong the time in which people can visit and pay their respects.

How long does the embalming process take?

How long the embalming process takes depends on factors such as which funeral director and which techniques are used. Typically, a complete embalming process should take between 2–4 hours, which includes the washing, drying and styling of a loved one's appearance to resemble how they looked during their life.

How long do the effects of embalming last?

Embalming does not stop the decaying process, it only slows it down enough that a loved one is presentable for a longer period of time. If you are having an open-casket funeral then you should not leave your loved one out for longer than one week.

How much does embalming cost in the UK?

The amount the embalming service costs depends largely on which funeral director you use, as well as factors such as the amount of work to be done and what embalming services they offer. As such, embalming can cost anywhere from £75–£200, depending on what services you’re looking for.

Where to get help with funeral planning?

Embalming is a personal choice and there is really no right or wrong decision in the matter. The most important thing is that your loved one has the funeral they deserve.

If you’re starting to think about putting provisions in place for your own funeral, our Over 50s life insurance page might be a good place to start learning about the different options available to you.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed in the page are those of the authors, intended to be informative, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SunLife. See our Terms of Use for more info.