Embalming : Reviewing Purpose and Procedures

Part One

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This is "Part One" of the required text for this course. After reading this section proceed to "Part Two".



Embalming is an art and a science that has been, and still continues to be a valuable practice in the care of deceased human bodies in the North American culture. How it continues on as a viable practice in the future will depend on how skillfully it is practiced and how effective the chemistry and technology used are. This particular text will not attempt to define or analyze either of those two, but rather concentrate on the review of a core procedure that will bring consistency to the enhanced results of the embalming operation.

First we should define the art and science of contemporary embalming from a practical and post mortem medical standpoint. From a proper and accurate definition we should be able to gain more insight into the actual purpose of the procedure. The embalming of the deceased human remains as it is typically practiced in North America is a process by which there is a realistic attempt made to effect; 1). the determinable disinfection, both internally and externally of the deceased human body; 2). the noticeable continued preservation of a safe and containable condition of the body for a period of time required for the memorialization of the deceased person; 3). to some noticeable extent the restoration of normal appearances which yield the recognizable identity of the individual deceased human remains.

This definition helps us to see why we practice the various procedures involved in a typical embalming operation. If the body is properly cleansed and disinfected through various chemical applications and injections it will enhance the retardation of the processes that would normally cause the un-embalmed human remains to deteriorate and decompose back to its original elements. The desired results of a staged process of embalming yield the human remains at various intervals to be available in a condition where normal and natural postures, tissue textures and cosmetic effects can be better achieved for the sake of recognition and a better psychological acceptance of mortality.

With the previous definitions and purposes stated, it is important to understand that not everyone understands, appreciates or desires the practice and intent of the embalming procedures that are typically understood to be part of the processes. In the latter part of the 20th century there has been a decline in what has been considered to be the practice of the “traditional funeral process”. This has caused there to be less of a demand for the extensive care of the deceased that is typically practiced in the normal embalming procedures. Many families in North America desire shorter and more direct forms of memorialization practiced as in various levels of immediate burials and direct cremations where the viewing of the body is not essential to the family’s wishes. Regardless of changing sociological trends the need for professional and thorough embalming practices will continue to be a viable profession for the next few decades. Thus it is important for the licensed professional embalmer to be proficient and current in their practices and abilities in the art and science of embalming.

In the first section of our text the preliminary and preparatory procedures for the actual embalming operation will be discussed. Then in the sequential sections, the actual procedures that should take place will be articulated in the sequence of a typical embalming case that has not experienced an autopsy prior to the embalming operation. At the conclusion of the discussion of that typical and standard process of embalming, more difficult or non-typical cases will be illuminated as to their variables and particular circumstances and procedures that could apply in those types of cases..             


1). Preparation and Cleansing of the Body


When the deceased is brought in to the preparation room of the funeral home or mortuary, they often arrive from the place of death with some form of attire on them. Most deaths occur at a hospital or nursing care facility. The human remains are transferred from their bed to the mortuary cot and them delivered to the funeral home facility. Once the human remains has been placed on the operating (embalming) table, any clothing, jewelry and medical attachments should be removed. All jewelry (regardless of perceived value) should be cleaned, dried and placed in a marked envelope or container with the deceased name prominently visible on it. These articles should all be eventually remanded to the custody of the immediate and/or surviving family members.

The body should then be bathed externally with a disinfecting soap. This removes dirt, urine, feces and other forms of contamination that may be topically present on the deceased human remains. It is necessary to roll or prop the remains adequately so as to wash all of the under surfaces of the body completely. Even though the body may be somewhat soiled during the forthcoming embalming operation it is always better to start with a cleansed body. This is so that existing skin texture, color and potential lacerations and leaks may be seen accurately and corrected as needed with proper procedure during the course of the forth coming operation.

The next task to accomplish is that of disinfecting the facial features of the mouth eyes, nose and ears. Many embalming fluid manufacturers produce a spray on chemical treatment intended to be used just for this specific reason. Some embalmers will simply use an over the counter mouthwash that can be purchased at any pharmacy or market for this treatment.  

This treatment should be applied directly to the open eye lids, the surface of the actual eye ball and underneath the eyelids. The same treatment should also be applied directly into both nasal passages and at various angles into and around the oral cavity (mouth). If there are dentures or partial dental fixtures in the mouth they should be removed prior to such a treatment and separately disinfected. Finally this same treatment should be done on the ears and ear canals. The excess of the chemical disinfectant on all of these features should be swabbed off of the facial features using cotton or a soft towel or cloth. These towels, cloth or cotton should always be disposed of in properly marked bio-hazardous waste containers.



2). Positioning the Body


The posture or positioning of the head in normal embalming cases is best to do before the internal injection of chemicals which may fixate it to somewhat of a permanent position. The exact position of the head is typically the funeral home’s preference, and is often determined by the custom that people in their community or their clientele are used to seeing when viewing the body. There are typically two standard positions for the head to be placed. One position would be to have the face aimed straight up at the ceiling. The other position would be to tilt the face at a slight angle out toward the (non-hinged) side of the open casket. 

The exact position of the hands and arms is again typically the funeral home’s preference, and is often determined by the custom that people in their community or their clientele are used to seeing when viewing the body. Some funeral homes cup the left hand over the right hand on the center or lower abdomen, so as to make wedding rings more visible if and when they are placed on the body for viewing. Other funeral homes position hands resting respectively on the waistline or upper leg regions. Still some funeral homes place arms and hands straight at the sides of the abdomen and legs parallel to the entire body. In some cases this last way may be a necessary technique to help hide severely injured or discolored hands that cannot be corrected through an adequate amount of restorative art skills and/or cosmetics.       

The overall posture or positioning of the complete body in normal embalming cases is best to accomplish before the internal injection of chemicals which may fixate it to somewhat of a permanent position. The ideal overall position of the entire body is to perceive a straight line extending from the top of the head down through the center of the chest and groin and ending at the inside of both heels of the foot as they touch together.   


3). Posing the Facial Features


The eyes should be closed evenly, symmetrically matching one another as much as possible. Typically the upper eyelid should cover the upper two third of the eye, and the lower eyelid should cover the lower third of the eye when properly closed. Plastic perforated eye caps can be placed on the actual eyeball underneath the eye lids in this process to help hold the eye lids closed and in place.

 The mouth should be closed evenly so as to yield a normal relaxed expression on the face of the deceased. This can be done a number of ways. One method involved the forced injection of wires attached to a steel bard directly into the upper and lower jaw areas with an instrument called a needle injector. Once the wires are securely in place, then they can be twisted together to draw the upper and lower gums and teeth together into a normal position.

Another method is to suture with ligature the lower jaw tissue up through the upper lip, across the septum of the nose and down through the opposite side of the mouth where they can be securely tied together to form a normal position for the mouth and lips.            

A plastic curved device called a mouth former may be inserted under the lips and between the gums to give the mouth a natural appearance and shape in the absence of teeth or dentures. If the deceased has dentures and they have been cleaned as described in Section 1, they may be used in their proper position to give the mouth a normal contoured appearance also.    

In some cases where the deceased may be emaciated due to extreme weight loss, additional filler such as a soft cotton(in small amounts or a facial putty, manufactured by embalming supply companies may need to be inserted into the various areas of the mouth and cheeks to even out the contours and lines of the face, thus forming a more natural appearance and expression.


Central Institute for Educational Advancement
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