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What is embalming? A guide to the embalming process

This guide explains the process of embalming, when it is used and why people choose this additional service.

Please be advised that this article contains information about how embalming works and you may find some of the details upsetting if a loved one has recently passed away.

What is embalming?

Embalming is the process of introducing a disinfectant solution to the internal environment of the body when someone passes away. It delays changes to the body which occur after death, giving the deceased a more restful appearance and, in some situations, removing some visible effects of the cause of death.

Care of the deceased

It is important that our clients understand the level of care given to their relatives whilst in the care of a Dignity Funeral Director.

You expect high standards, your relative deserves high standards, and we provide high standards. On your behalf we look after each loved one you entrust to our care. As your Funeral Director, this is fundamental to what we do.

At Dignity, we understand that respect is a compulsory obligation placed upon us by you. We acknowledge that identification is a concern for you. We recognise that compassion is of paramount importance to you and your family when you are with us and also when we work on your behalf when you are not.

Our employees in Dignity Care Centres are dedicated to providing the highest standards of professionalism whilst looking after your relative. Care of deceased is something your Funeral Director will discuss with you.

We realise that, from time to time, the circumstances of death may present challenges in fulfilling expectations of having an open coffin in the Chapel of Rest. We shall, however, endeavour to ensure your wishes are adhered to where it is within our control to do so.

Describing embalming as an ‘additional service’ is important as, in most cases, washing and dressing of the deceased will happen whether embalming is carried out or not. There will, however, be circumstances where for various reasons beyond our control (e.g. the condition of the tissues of the body or if we have been notified of a potential risk of infection) we may advise alternative procedures in the absence of embalming being instructed by you or permitted/recommended by medical or legal professionals.

We may also revisit the subject of embalming with you if we determine your decision to omit embalming from our services will impact on any further aspect of the funeral, for example an open coffin attendance or a Church service. This is not financially motivated but rather to support you in what you have asked us to provide. Your Funeral Director will discuss this with you if necessary.

Why carry out embalming?

In a living person, the bacteria within the human body that support life are contained where they perform best by the internal life processes of the body. If they are inadvertently transferred to other parts of the body, their functions can become impaired or create a reaction that can make a person ill.

After death, these life processes or “barriers” cease to work and the natural migration of bacteria produces changes that may be noticeable visibly or by odour. The time these changes take to become apparent is subject to influence by many factors, for example:

  • The time between the deceased being brought into our care and death occurring
  • The cause of death
  • Medication the person has been receiving
  • Environmental factors.

When talking to your Funeral Director, you may hear words such as presentation, preservation and sanitation. We hope this information helps you understand these terms and the underlying reasons for any advice we may offer.

Will an autopsy affect embalming?

When we bring your relative into our care, depending on the circumstances of death, a post mortem examination or “autopsy” may have been performed. This does not affect whether we can support you with embalming.

The embalming process

In its simplest form, this is the introduction of a disinfectant solution to the internal environment of the body.

In life, the body is nourished by nutrients via the bloodstream. In order to accomplish this, the arterial system is required to reach virtually every individual tissue contained within it. It is therefore easy to understand that a disinfectant solution injected into the bloodstream after death will be distributed around the body and reduce the activity of bacteria and pathogens within it.

The different disinfectant solutions used comprise a number of constituents designed to combat the effects of disease and are specialist combinations used solely for embalming purposes.

Your local Dignity Funeral Director will be able to talk to you about embalming in more detail and advise you on whether it is the right choice for you and your loved one.

How long does embalming take?

The embalming process typically takes two hours to complete, however this includes washing and drying the hair and body of the deceased. This time may increase if the cause of death has affected the body in any way.

How long does the effect of embalming last?

There is no definitive answer to this question. Various factors may restrict this, for example the condition of the body or the length of time between the deceased being brought into our care and the time of death. Under normal circumstances, we would not expect this to affect your funeral arrangements, however, your Funeral Director will inform you if there is any aspect you should be made aware of.

Why choose embalming?

In most cases, there is no legal obligation to embalm someone when they die, yet it is still a very popular choice in the UK.

The most common reasons for choosing embalming are:

  • It provides peace of mind that, should you or a family member change your mind on requesting to visit the Chapel of Rest, this can be facilitated without concern up to the day of the funeral.

  • In most situations, embalming permits a family to view their relative for a longer period of time without natural changes taking place.

  • The appearance of the deceased may be restored following the effects of disease or injury.

  • A person expressed a wish to be embalmed perhaps through a prepaid funeral plan.

  • You may request that we repatriate your relative. Embalming is required for this.

  • It may be necessary to delay the funeral taking place. Embalming is advisable in such circumstances

An Embalming Suite

Below is an introduction to the Embalming Suite at Dignity’s Dinnington Care Centre. If viewing the embalming suite may be uncomfortable and you’d like to skip this walk-through, that’s completely fine. 

If you're interested in finding out more, please click on the play button to open the walk-through, and minimise the burgundy message which reads ‘The Embalming Suite’ using the small arrow on the left. Straight ahead, you’ll see a pink play button. Watch the video, and then take your time to look around and click on the yellow interactive icons to find out more.


Written by Ewan Henderson, Head of Health and Safety, Dignity Funerals

Ewan has been a qualified embalmer for over 20 years, having been awarded a Diploma by the British Institute of Embalmers (BIE). He has previously worked as Embalming Services Manager at Dignity and National Education Committee Chairman at the BIE.

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