Funeral Homes and Embalming

Embalming is the art and science of preserving human remains by treating them (in its modern form with chemicals) to forestall decomposition. The intention is usually to make the deceased suitable for public or private viewing as part of the funeral ceremony, or keep them preserved for medical purposes in an anatomical laboratory. The three goals of embalming are sanitization, presentation, and preservation, with restoration being an important additional factor in some instances. Performed successfully, embalming can help preserve the body for a duration of many years.

Embalming became more common in the United States during the American Civil War, when servicemen often died far from home. The wish of families for their remains to be returned home for local burial and lengthy transport from the battlefield meant it became common in the United States.

The period from about 1861 is sometimes known as the funeral period of embalming and is marked by a separation of the fields of embalming by undertakers and embalming (anatomical wetting) for medical and scientific purposes. Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers to return to their families. Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas. The passage of Abraham Lincoln's body home for burial was made possible by embalming, and it brought the possibilities and potential of embalming to wider public notice.

Until the early 20th century, embalming fluids often contained arsenic until it was supplanted by more effective and less toxic chemicals. There was concern about the possibility of arsenic from embalmed bodies contaminating ground water supplies and legal concerns that people suspected of murder by arsenic poisoning might claim in defense that levels of poison in the deceased's body were the result of post-mortem embalming not homicide.

In 1867, the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde, whose preservative properties were soon noted, and it became the foundation for modern methods of embalming.

Dr. Frederic Ryusch was the first one to have used the arterial injection method for embalming. His work of embalming was so nearly perfect that people thought the dead body was actually alive; however, he only used it to prepare specimens for his anatomical work.

Modern Embalming is most often performed to ensure a better presentation of the deceased for viewing by friends and relatives.

A successful viewing of the body is helpful in the grieving process. Embalming has the potential to prevent mourners from having to deal with the rotting and eventual putrescence of the corpse.

Embalming is also a general legal requirement for international repatriation of human remains (although exceptions do occur) and is required by a variety of laws depending on locality and circumstance, such as for extended time between death and final disposition or above-ground entombment.


Above: 1930s Electric Embalming Pump with Tools and Fluids on display at the NHPSH Museum


Above: Grave Marker for PVT J.M. Sanders from the Confederate States Army buried in Upper Greens Creek Cemetery, Stephenville, Texas

Harrell Funeral Home, Dublin, Texas

Fawcett Funeral Home, Winthrop, Iowa