As part of the cycle of life, death is inevitable for everyone. It can happen anywhere and at any time. While some have time to say their goodbyes before a loved one is lost, some deaths are sudden. Such deaths can be difficult to come to terms with, which is why having viewing sessions is encouraged for the bereaved family. It’s a chance for the family members and friends to offer their final goodbyes and share their final moments with the deceased. Viewing offers comfort and a bit of closure where the bereaved come to terms with the reality of the loss.
Just as people prepare to bring life into the world, there are also certain preparations required when ushering life out of the world. Preparing a body for a funeral requires it to go through certain processes. Some processes like embalming or refrigeration are common for all dead bodies. There are, however, other preparations that are specific to the family, the religious and personal beliefs as well as, the deceased final wishes.
This article covers what happens to a body after death, and will also discuss the different processes of embalming and refrigeration as well as the considerations when preparing a body for viewing.
What Happens to the Body After Death?
What undertakers do to a dead body, or how the body is prepared for burial follows different chains of events. This depends on where and how it occurred as well as, how the family decides to handle the remains. Generally, however, regardless of anything, the body of the deceased is first bathed and disinfected. This is normally done because after death, the body begins to decompose. It is therefore a safety measure for anyone who will be handling the body. Depending on the familial, cultural, and religious beliefs, some families prefer to handle the washing of the deceased.
The next step is dependent on how the deceased died and final wishes like organ donations. If the death was sudden or occurred a few days after seeing a doctor, then an autopsy is warranted before issuing a death or cremation certificate. In the case of an autopsy, or organ donation or if the death was traumatic, then the body would need to undergo special restoration procedures, in preparation for viewing.
As per the decision made by the family or individual in charge of planning the service, the body can be embalmed and refrigerated awaiting burial or cremation. If the body needs to be transported, then arrangements are made after embalming or once it’s packed in ice. For bodies being transported more embalming fluid is normally used to preserve them.
For public or private viewing, cosmetics are applied on the body and the hair is styled as per the wishes of the deceased or family and friends. The body is then dressed in the clothes given by the family and placed in a coffin in a viewing room. The clothes can be old clothes worn by the deceased before or new ones purchased by the family.
Is Embalming Necessary?
Embalming is normally handled by a licensed embalmer who in most cases also happens to be the funeral home director. So, all funeral homes should be able to provide the embalming service.f
Embalming is important in the preservation of the body, especially if it’s not being cremated or buried within 48 hours. This gives the family and friends of the deceased more time to plan a proper funeral. Embalming also makes it possible for an open casket viewing as well as transporting the body over long distances if needed. On top of preservation, embalming is a safety measure that protects those handling or viewing the body from any health hazards. For example, if the deceased died of a communicable disease.
While embalming has great significance, it is not a necessity. Refrigeration is another form of preserving the body and can be done without embalming. Therefore, it is not a legal necessity, especially for direct burials or cremation and close casket funerals, where refrigeration is an option. It is, therefore, considered unlawful for funeral service providers to misrepresent the necessity of embalming. They are required by law to inform you, as their client, that embalming is not a requirement.
The History of Embalming.
The original meaning of the English word embalming was “to put on balm”. It was coined from the act of applying spices, spirits, and perfumed ointment to a dead body to preserve it. Today it means the introduction of chemicals to the body as a way of preservation.
The act of embalming can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. They are said to have started the process of embalming due to the religious belief that the soul never truly leaves the body. Another reason was to avoid contaminating the Nile river, which was where they used to bury the dead as a form of preservation.
Aside from the ancient Egyptians, the act of embalming was also observed in some ancient Ethiopian tribes, Persians, Babylonians, and Syrians. Their methods of embalming, however, differed. Embalming was later seen all through the 1400s to 1900s, with scientists like Da Vinci, and Dr. Thomas Holmes developing ways to preserve organs for scientific research.
During the civil war, embalming became a common act that preserved the bodies of soldiers long enough to return home for a proper burial. The practice died after the Civil war and was only started again in the twentieth century where advances had been made in the process of embalming. Today it is offered for families who wish to have a viewing, an open casket funeral or transport the body over long distances.
Basic Features of Embalming.
The following is a summary of the main facts about the embalming process:
- Preservation of the body is done by surgically draining the body fluid and filling it up with embalming fluid.
- The effects of embalming last for a week, most funeral homes.in some cases more.
- It is more expensive compared to refrigeration but readily available in
- It’s encouraged when having a viewing or open-casket funeral.
- Procedures like autopsy and organ donation do not affect the process.
Is Refrigeration Necessary?
Refrigeration is an alternative way of preserving the body if you do not wish to embalm it. Most if not all funeral homes have refrigeration facilities, so it is an available option. It is a cheaper form of preservation compared to embalming especially if the body is not being buried within 48hours.
Like embalming, refrigeration gives the family time to plan the funeral and preparing the body for burial. It is also a cheaper way of preserving the body for transportation over long distances. Although it is significant, it is also not a necessity. While some state laws dictate when a body should be disposed of after death, no law requires you to refrigerate the body before cremation or burials.
Therefore, refrigeration is not necessary if you wish to have a direct burial or cremation. It is also not the best choice if you wish to have a viewing or open-casket funeral. In such cases, embalming would be the preferred choice. Refrigeration is only suitable for preserving the body until the time of disposition. It’s especially a great option for those wishing to have a green burial.
Basic Features of Refrigeration.
Here are some of the main facts about refrigerating a dead body:
- Preservation of the body does not require any chemicals.
- The body is simply maintained at a constant temperature, usually 2 degrees Celsius.
- It is cheaper than the embalming process.
- The body can be preserved indefinitely or until the maximum time stated by law.
Preparing the Body For Viewing
Viewing is considered important for grieving families and friends to say their goodbyes and find closure. For families that decide to have a viewing, there is normally a process that goes into preparing the dead body for viewing. Funeral homes in such cases would inquire from the family whether they would like the body to be embalmed.
As mentioned before, embalming is not a necessity especially if the viewing is private. Funeral homes, however, encourage and require it if the viewing is public or if it’s an open casket funeral. The reason is that embalming helps sanitize the dead body and gives it a natural peaceful look. This way the family will not be distressed when viewing the body. They will also be safeguarded from any health hazard.
The process of embalming normally starts with the undertakers washing the body and hair as well as disinfecting it. Next, an incision is made to access the jugular vein to drain out all the blood from the body. Once that is done, the undertakers or embalmer will inject a solution normally formaldehyde, into the carotid artery using a special embalming machine. Using a trocar, gases and body fluids from the abdominal and thoracic cavities are drained. The cavities are then filled with embalming fluids. All incisions are then sewn up and the body is washed again.
The undertakers then groom the nails and hair. They may inject a solution to plump the facial features in case the dead body looks emaciated or dehydrated. In case of a traumatic death or disease that altered the appearance of the deceased, the undertaker uses wax and adhesives to restore the natural appearance of the deceased as closely as possible. The nasal and oral cavities are packed with cotton and the eyes and mouth sealed closed.
Finally, the body is dressed in the clothes provided by the family of the deceased, and the hands are crossed over the abdomen, as they normally appear in a casket. The undertaker may apply cosmetics to add color to the deceased facial features. The cosmetics used can be regular cosmetics or special mortuary cosmetics. Once the hair is styled, the body is placed in the casket and put in the viewing room.
The decision as to how the body is prepared, however, varies when considering certain factors. Aside from whether it’s a public viewing or an open-casket funeral, religion and how soon the burial will take place are also deciding factors.
Religious Considerations When Preparing the Body.
With religions like Jews and Muslims, embalming is not allowed unless required by law. This is because they believe in the natural decomposition of the body in the earth, hence are against the chemicals used in embalming. In such cases, if a viewing is to be held, it is normally done within 48hours or sooner. Here the only process of preparing the body would be to wash the body.
Muslims however, according to their beliefs will have an imam wash the body instead of the funeral directors. In the Hindu religion, the families also are the ones to wash the dead body, they however are not against embalming, although it isn’t necessary for them due to cremation. Other religions that are open to embalming are Catholics, Buddhists, Anglicans, and Baptists among others.
If You Are Planning A Direct Burial or Direct Cremation.
For a direct burial or cremation, embalming is not a requirement. This is because there is no viewing involved, nor is there a need to preserve the body. In such cases, the body is washed and refrigerated until its time for cremating or burial. In the case of cremation, the funeral director or undertaker must ensure that items like pacemakers are removed from the body after washing and before cremation.
If You’ll Be Having A Pre-Funeral Event or An Open-Casket Funeral.
Holding a pre-funeral event like a viewing or wake could require the body to be embalmed. If the viewing is private then that may not be necessary. However, if the viewing is public or you’re holding an open casket funeral, it is required to embalm the body. Embalming the body not only disinfects and preserves it but also gives the facial features a natural and peaceful look. This makes it easier for the family to view the body.
The Advantages of DNA Sampling for Preserving Genes.
Today with the advancement in technology, there has also been great progress in the genetic research field. Given the improvement, there is now technology that can create genetic profiles from our DNA. There are even several facilities that offer DNA typing and banking for the deceased.
This involves collecting a DNA sample from the dead body for typing, evaluation, and storage. These samples are stored in highly regulated facilities for ten years or more. The sample collection can be done before imminent death and after death but not after cremation. Your funeral director should be able to find a suitable facility for you upon request. Below is the list of advantages of DNA sampling to preserve genes:
- Researching for a cure. Researchers believe that most disorders and diseases are genetic. By sampling and preserving genes from deceased who suffered from such ailments, researchers can find the cause and cure.
- Health and genetic diagnosis. Using the deceased DNA sample, family members or future descendants can find out if they have any genetic predisposition to certain diseases or disorders.
- Finding biological ties. Using the DNA sample of the deceased, you can find out any paternal links, family heritage, and genetic history. This information is especially useful in situations where someone makes claims on the inheritance left by the deceased.
Toward a Final Resting Place
After the preparation of the body and any pre-funeral event, it is time to put the body to rest. Depending on the deceased’s final wishes or the family’s choice, there are many ways in which the remains can be handled. The most common ways are cremation or traditional burial.
For cremation, the body is usually transported to the crematory within the funeral home or at a third-party location. This is done once the death and cremation certificate has been issued. A family member is normally required to be present to identify the body before its cremated. The body is then placed in a cremation casket and burned. The cremation can happen individually or as a group as directed. For group cremation, the ashes are normally disposed of by the cremator. For individual cremation, the ashes are collected and handed to the family. A memorial can be held after the cremation, where the family can decide to spread the ashes at a preferred location.
As for the traditional burial, the body is placed in a casket and buried in the ground. The body is dressed on such occasions. Depending on the familial, cultural, or religious beliefs, some belongings can be placed in the casket and buried with the body. Otherwise, before the casket is lowered, things like jewelry are removed and returned to the family. For traditional burials, all the family members are present when the casket is lowered to the ground. There usually is a service beforehand to commemorate the occasion.
Other less popular ways include natural or green burials. These involve burying the body directly in the earth or a biodegradable casket. In such burials, the bodies are not embalmed beforehand, given the nature of the burial. Another less common method of disposition is using alkaline hydrolysis. It is an alternative to cremation that reduces the body to bone fragments. Whichever, way the family chooses to handle the remains, they need to lay the deceased to rest as a way of a final farewell.
Planning a funeral can be stressful especially while grieving. There are a lot of decisions to be made, for example regarding the preparation of the body and the type of service needed. Sometimes the whole process can be overwhelming, so it is okay to ask for help or guidance where needed.
You could request a family member or close friend to tag along as you plan for the funeral, to help make the difficult decisions or handle negotiations. About preparing the body for the funeral, you could seek guidance from your religious leader where it applies. That way you have a clearer idea of what is allowed. You can also seek professional assistance from experts or funeral directors concerning the different processes of preservation. In terms of cost, you could also inquire about burial insurance or pursue alternate ways to cover the cost of the funeral.
Planning for a funeral and making decisions on how to prepare the dead body can be cumbersome. That is why the key to it is planning. This saves you from the stress while grieving. You can even plan and pay for your funeral in advance, to alleviate the burden from your loved ones.