By Gail Rubin

Embalming is one of the “ickier” aspects of funerals that keep people from considering funeral planning in advance. That’s a shame, because no state laws require embalming. It comes down to the question of viewing.

The advent of embalming, and its use during the Civil War, changed the course of funeral practice in the United States. It set the U.S. funeral industry apart from the rest of the world.

Dr. Thomas Holmes, one of the founding fathers of embalming, experimented with various fluids while working as a doctor and coroner’s assistant in New York City during the 1840s and 1850s. He’s also considered the inventor of the injection pump for the arterial method of embalming.

Embalming was first utilized broadly in the United States during the Civil War. Back then, surgeon-embalmers utilized chemical compounds, including mercury and arsenic, to preserve soldiers’ bodies long enough to ship them from the battlefield to their hometowns.

Embalming involves draining the blood and replacing it with a chemical solution that includes formaldehyde and other toxic fluids that sanitize microbes in the body. This retards, but does not stop, the process of decomposition.

Most funeral directors require embalming if the body will be put on display for viewing. It’s a misconception that this absolutely must be done. Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule of 1984 dictates disclosure that embalming is not required.

Refrigeration will suffice if the viewing is just for the immediate family and for 30 minutes or less. Refrigeration can adequately preserve a body for up to four days before burial.

Both Jews and Muslims traditionally avoid embalming and bury the body within 24 hours. This practice originates in a hot desert culture before the advent of refrigeration. Without cooling, a body starts to decompose within the first 24 hours after death.

Many funeral homes have refrigeration units, especially those that offer Jewish funerals. Mortuaries that offer green burial are also likely to have refrigeration units.

The judicious use of dry ice is another option to keep a body refrigerated at a funeral home, during ground transportation, or in a private home. Care must be taken to provide plenty of fresh air in the room. Dry ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide, and without adequate ventilation it can cause asphyxiation as the dry ice evaporates.

Don’t let the fear of embalming keep you from this important aspect of planning. Funeral planning before there’s a death helps the family save money, avoid stress at a time of grief, and allows time to create a meaningful, memorable “good goodbye.”


Gail Rubin is a Certified Celebrant and speaker who brings light to a dark subject and helps get funeral planning conversations started. Her book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die, has won multiple awards.

A Good Goodbye