This is Article #2 of a 5 part series that Tate Mortuary had published in the “Tooele Transcript Bulletin” around February of 2005 addressing some frequently asked questions about funeral related issues.
Preservation of human remains for various religious and social reasons has been done for thousands of years. Today there are three major reasons for embalming: Preservation, Sanitation and Restoration. We believe that restoring the body of a loved one to natural and peaceful appearance is very important. It allows the family an opportunity to physically confront the death in a way that is more visually pleasing. Disinfection during embalming decreases the possibility of the spread of disease through proper sanitation techniques.
Preservation allows time for post death ceremonies such as a viewing and a funeral. Embalming as practiced in the U.S. today gained acceptance during the Civil War as a way to postpone decomposition until proper burial could be arranged. Embalming uses the body’s circulatory system to disburse preservative chemicals throughout the body. The necessary pressure to accomplish this distribution is created by an embalming machine. In years past, this pressure was created by gravity. (The pressure was increased or decreased by raising or lowering the container of embalming fluid.) A tube is introduced into an artery and as the embalming fluid enters the arterial system; the aortic valve of the heart is forced closed, which then caused the embalming fluid to flow throughout the arterial system, capillaries and into the venous system to an open vein. Once in the tissues and cells the formaldehyde in the embalming fluid chemically bonds with proteins, creating protein chains that are too large to escape the cell membrane, thus temporarily preventing decomposition.
How long embalming lasts, depends upon external factors such as temperature and humidity. A well embalmed body kept in a dry, cool place can last a very long time, with very little decomposition. Since arterial embalming is a circulatory process, anything that disrupts the body’s blood vessels decreases the effectiveness of embalming. Trauma, autopsy, tissue donation are examples of circulatory system disruptions. An area of the body where blood flow has been compromised must be preserved in other ways. Hypodermic injection, surface packs and dry preserving powders are some methods of treating these areas. I mentioned tissue donation as an example. Please don’t take that as a disparaging comment. Tissue donation is a wonderful and in many cases, a life-saving gift and everyone should seriously consider becoming a donor. Common sense dictates, however, that removal of any tissue or organ disrupts the circulatory system of the body. Comments suggesting that “any embalmer worth his salt can fix that” are usually made by persons with no knowledge of the process, not by good embalmers. We will do everything within our power to create a pleasing appearance, but some things are beyond our control. That’s as honest as we can be.