Guest post by Hatty Stafford Charles of Naturensbalm
Embalming is used in a number of circumstances and for a variety of reasons. If the body is to be viewed before or during the funeral, embalming will sometimes be necessary. If the person has died after an accident or debilitating illness, the embalmer can do much to restore the appearance friends and family are used to. It is also a requirement when moving the body across international borders and across state lines in some countries.
When a person dies, decomposition starts at once, although the speed of this process will depend very much on the environment with factors such as temperature having a significant effect. Without bloodflow and muscle use, skin will sink and dry out and the body will gradually start to lose definition. Embalming has also been promoted as a way to combat the health implications of bacteria and viruses present in and on the body, although it is now generally accepted that this is almost never a problem.
The process of embalming removes all fluid from the body and replaces it with a chemical alternative. This process plumps, firms and fixes the flesh, giving a more ‘life like’ appearance which friends and family often find more comforting. Embalming also sanitises the body which may be necessary in some situations.
Traditionally formaldehyde has been the standard chemical used for embalming. Formaldehyde is a highly toxic preservative which is used in all kinds of every-day products both directly and in derivative form. Anyone using formaldehyde needs to wear protective clothing and its smell is an irritant causing headaches, throat irritation and loss of sense of smell, so efficient air extraction is also required. In the United States it is classed as a carcinogen and, everywhere in the world, formaldehyde is regarded as damaging to the environment. However, the sterilising effects of formaldehyde are well documented and its ability to preserve tissue is second-to-none. For long term preservation, formaldehyde is the best compound available.
For the purposes of burial, however, this long-term fixing effect is not generally required as most bodies will be buried within ten days of embalming. Even formaldehyde cannot preserve tissue indefinitely and, over time, formaldehyde will eventually leech out into the grave, so the act of preserving a body becomes, long term, an environmental problem. Alternatives such as Naturensbalm are available which allow embalming to take place (including for the purposes of international transport). Naturensbalm is a more natural PVP Iodine product which sanitises and fixes the tissue for a week to ten days before harmlessly dispersing and allowing the natural process of decomposition to take place. It is safer for embalmers to use and creates a natural effect which loved ones find pleasing. Some green burial sites will allow natural embalming fluids to be used – though not all – and they are far preferable in cremation as they do not make toxic fumes.