Although many of us have seen an embalmed body at a memorial service or wake, most of us are not very knowledgeable about embalming facts. You may not like to think about what happens when you're embalmed, but it’s actually a fascinating process. A lot of time, skill, and toxic chemicals go into preparing a body for its final presentation.
So how does embalming work? It’s not a pretty process, but embalming a body is crucial for anyone who wants an open casket or a viewing of any kind. While as much care as possible is taken to make sure that the body is respected, embalming is still a very clinical process. It takes less time than you might think - the actual embalming normally takes between 45 minutes and an hour. But the dressing of the body and the makeup may take much longer. The whole procedure ensures decomposition is slowed down as much as possible and that the body is returned to its most lifelike and natural state. This has a huge impact on the service - and the grieving process more generally. A relaxed, natural-looking body is much less traumatic for a loved one, especially when the deceased passed in a traumatic way.
While each embalming process can be slightly different, depending on the body in question, basic steps are followed each time. (And for more gruesome education, you can follow along step by step with an autopsy here.)
First things first: your body has to be laid down on its back. This may seem obvious, but actually, laying the body flat and face-up has a very specific purpose. Gravity pulls everything downwards, including blood. If the body is face-down, blood will pool around the face, leading to discoloration.
To make sure it's as easy as possible for the embalmers to make the body look peaceful and lifelike, you have to be on your back, where blood pools away from the parts of you that will be on view later.
You can never be too careful - a statement which must be more true in the embalming world than almost anywhere else. Before the pros embark on any of the following embalming processes, there has to be one last check for vitals. Premature burial is the world's worst worst-case scenario, so one final check makes sense.
Checking for things like lividity, pulse, and even clouded corneas can prevent disaster.
Everything is removed from the body. This includes your clothes, of course, but also any IVs or catheters that may have been attached by medical personnel while you were still alive. A cloth is left over the genitals to protect the modesty of the deceased.
Then, the rest of the body has to be checked for any marks or discoloration. These will be noted on the embalmer's report.
Washing and disinfecting are a key stage in the embalming process. All of your orifices need to be washed, inside and out, with a combination of germicide and disinfectant solutions. (The embalmer will decide what specific solutions are needed based on the condition of your body.) They will also shave your face, if necessary.
This is normally true for men, but they will also remove peach fuzz from women's faces in order to improve their appearance.