The f-word

Charles 10 Comments

Some people in Funeralworld get in a pickle about formaldehyde. It’s an f-word. Natural buriers won’t have it. Embalmers get cancer from it. MDF coffins are damnably full of it. It’s bad. 

How bad? 

The World Health Organisation published its own findings as long ago as 1991. I’m grateful to the Funeral Consumers Alliance for putting us on to it. The findings are illuminating. Here are some extracts: 

Under atmospheric conditions, formaldehyde is readily photooxidized by sunlight to carbon dioxide. 

Formaldehyde kills viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and has found wide use as a fumigant. It is a disinfectant with a broad efficiency

There is some natural formaldehyde in raw food 

Formaldehyde is readily absorbed via the respiratory and gastrointestinal routes. Dermal absorption of formaldehyde appears to be very slight. Increases in blood concentrations of formaldehyde were not detected in rats or human beings exposed to formaldehyde through inhalation, because of rapid metabolism.

Formaldehyde is carcinogenic in rats and mice. It produced nasal squamous cell carcinomas in rats exposed to high concentrations (17.2 mg/m3) … [Among humans] the causal role of formaldehyde is considered likely only for nasal and nasopharyngeal cancer. 

Areas in which formaldehyde is handled must be well ventilated. Normally, mechanical ventilation is necessary. 

Formaldehyde is widely present in the environment, as a result of natural processes and from man-made sources. 

Formaldehyde in soil and water is … biodegraded in a relatively short time. 

Formaldehyde is toxic for several aquatic organisms, but its ready biodegradability, low bioaccumulation, and the ability of organisms to metabolize it indicate that the impact of formaldehyde on the aquatic environment is limited, except in the case of major pollution. Similar considerations apply to the atmosphere and the terrestrial environment where hazards will only occur when massive discharges or releases lead to major local pollution. The non-persistence of formaldehyde means that effects will not be permanent.

Full WHO report here




  1. Charles

    Your extracts make formaldehyde seem positively delightful!

    My concern about leaning on the WHO report is that it is so old. If it was published in 1991, then the data will be at least a year or two older — so pushing a quarter of a century. I’d want to look at more up-to-date sources.

    For example, this more recent (2011) American report of various research initiatives raises the possibility that occupational exposure to fomaldehyde may be linked not only to nasal cancers but also to myeloid leukaemia:

    Perhaps other readers know of relevant research?

  2. Charles

    I don’t know of any relevant research, Kathryn, no. But I do believe the issue of formaldehyde can be a bit of a red herring when it comes to the un/desirability of embalming, which discussion extends into other health realms entirely than just physical.

  3. Charles

    Thanks for posting this Charles. I’m still undecided on the subject but at least I’m a bit better educated.

    This is a subject that needs bringing into the open; debate is long overdue.

  4. Charles

    For me, it’s not really about what formaldehyde may or may not do to the environment, it is about the psychological strangeness of making our newly dead look asleep, and what that says about our relationship with our deaths.

    1. Charles

      I’m with you here, Ru, on the ‘disturbing delusion’ aspect, but I don’t experience the problem as a binary split. I think the denial of the health-risks to embalmers (effing nose-cancer!!!) — and where are the embalmers themselves on this? — is all a part of the same mad problem as the ‘asleep’ fantasy.

      I’d say that the ‘asleep’ problem is somewhat a hangover from a confused bit of the Xtian story that invites us all to hold our breaths for the resurrection that will come after the last trump. A more enlightened version might recognise that the omnipotent could effect any necessary repairs and cosmetic tweaks, and that our job in the meantime is to accept the reality of this particular end-of-earthlife.

  5. Charles

    1920s advertisement by a Boston (USA) embalmer:

    For composing the features, $1
    For giving the features a look of quiet resignation, $2
    For giving the features the appearance of Christian hope and contentment, $5

    Any advances on these, ladies and gentlemen?

  6. Charles

    Embalming plays a very important part in helping families come to terms with the death of a loved one or friend. By making the person look asleep is a much better way to remember them rather than seeing someone they love in a coffin looking terrible that is not a good way for people to see their loved ones. Good Embalming can bring a very positive outcome for families.

    1. Charles

      Yes, Mark, it can bring a positive outcome, sometimes, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution – have a look at my account of my mother visiting the body of her decomposing husband, found long-dead in a heatwave, and the resolution it brought her, in the Natural Death Handbook. I for one would not have wanted a memory of her, when her time came, looking asleep when I knew in my heart she was dead. I wanted her to look thoroughly dead, and I’m relieved she did so I could put her in a fire and destroy her; I suppose I must take after her in that way. But I can understand we’re all different – I’ve seen your artistic work (you came to Devon to do it, remember?) and the helpful effect it had on the lad’s mother, so embalm on!


  7. Charles

    It might be prudent for cemetery managers to know how much formaldehyde is contained within the bodies they are burying and to establish whether this toxic load will bio-degrade before it damages the living environment and pollutes groundwater.
    Owners of older cemeteries and churchyards have rarely undertaken the rigorous hydrogeological risk assessment that is now required for new burial grounds. There are many instances in old cemeteries (and some new) where groundwater has to be bailed or pumped out of the grave before the burial, indicating that there is no time delay to allow bio-degradation before the contaminants come into contact with groundwater (receptor).
    Unbiased scientific evaluation is largely absent from the death sector – comments from Environment Agency experts would be most welcome here.

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