Shanna Riley April 7th, 2007
Embalming a body for transient preservation is an archaic practice that can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians - and was used perhaps even before. Though the methods have changed somewhat, the idea of bodily preservation by removing the fluids and replacing them with chemicals (natural or unnatural) has remained the same.
The practice of embalming bodies for viewing or burial has no roots in any particular religion. Indeed, some religions - orthodox Jewish and Muslim, for example - prohibit embalming as it is considered a desecration of the body.
The practice of embalming only came into common use after the Civil War in the United States. In 1861, Dr. Thomas Holmes, injected the bodies of slain soldiers with a mixture of arsenic and water; the intention being to preserve them for the journey home so that they could be buried by family members. Arsenic was the choice ingredient in embalming fluids until around 1910, when it was decided to pose too much of a health risk.
Today, embalming fluids are usually a mixture of formaldehyde (5-29%), methanol, ethanol (9-65%), and other solvents. Embalming fluid is highly toxic, and embalmers are required to wear full-body covering, and often a respirator, while handling it.
The internal organs are not removed during embalming, contrary to popular belief. Instead, bodily fluids are removed while embalming fluids are pumped into the body; usually arterially.
A common misconception of today's public - and that some of the more unscrupulous funeral homes may claim - is that embalming is required by law before burial. It is, in fact, not - unless the body needs to be moved across state lines.
Although it is not law, most funeral homes do require embalming if there is to be a public viewing; as the process gives the body a more "agreeable" appearance (dyes are injected into the embalming fluid to give the now-dead skin more color). Those that wish to give private viewings in their homes or who plan to have a closed casket service, however, do not have to embalm the body of their loved one.
Another myth is that embalming preserves a body forever more; this is untrue. There is nothing - not even the most perfectly, sealed casket - that can accomplish this. Embalming is a temporary preservative, and nothing more. The body will, eventually, decay.
Those that are squeamish about being embalmed often opt for cremation; though some bodies - those that are viewed before being cremated - are embalmed as well.
Green burial is fairly new on the scene, and offers simple burials in wooden caskets with no preservation methods taken. Proponents of "green burials" believe that returning to the Earth as quickly and naturally as possible is a more environment-friendly - and logical - way to go.
The decision to be embalmed isn't a momentous one; you'll be dead, after all - but it is something to discuss with your family. Embalming is an invasive process and many religions do not allow it. If you aren't comfortable with the idea, you should let your family members know and discuss other options.
There is a wealth of information on embalming, even down to the exact details of the process, on the Internet. I urge you to look into these and understand the process, and the alternatives. Embalming - though the standard in our society - isn't for everyone.