Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Embalming: Part 2, Temporary Preservation

In addition to the dramatic changes that embalming can make upon the appearance of the deceased (Embalming Part 1), another result of embalming is temporary preservation.

In many cultures, funeral services take place immediately after death, and major world religions such as Islam and Judaism proscribe a narrow window of time within which burial must take place. In the United States today, many of our families are quite spread out, and we plan services to allow for newspaper notices to be printed, to fit our travel plans, or for the weekend when we’re off work. Embalming enables the delay in services and viewing.

Family and friends may need to travel long distances to attend funeral services

Embalming is a two stage process. First, embalming fluid is introduced to the body through the circulatory system, allowing for most tissues in the body to become temporarily preserved by binding the nitrogen atoms in the body’s proteins (muscles) together. This adds a firmness and a stability to the tissues.
The second step in embalming is the removal of waste material and digestive fluid from the body, followed by the introduction of embalming fluid into the hollow areas of the organs that do not get enough preservative fluid from the circulatory system. This fluid is, in turn, removed after it has a chance to act upon these tissues. Without the second step, rapid decomposition can occur, even with refrigeration.
Every year in the United States, families choose to have viewings without embalming because they see it as unnatural or bad for the environment. However, without embalming, the body can change rapidly, even with refrigeration. Think of how long a steak would remain fresh in your refrigerator – not very long. Now think about how long it would remain fresh if it hadn’t been separated from the waste and digestive enzymes present in the cow’s body- a very brief time indeed.

Time Flies

Formaldehyde is the active ingredient in embalming fluid. It is a cousin to alcohol, which preserves in a similar manner, but has the disadvantage of leaving the skin gray and coarse. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring and unstable gas. It is released into the atmosphere when lightning strikes, and though cutting and sanding wood in a wood shop. It is naturally present in our atmosphere and is used in the production of many consumer goods. During embalming, the formaldehyde acts upon the proteins in the body, binding together the nitrogen atoms. After this chemical reaction, all that is left of the formaldehyde are the temporarily bound proteins and water.

Amino Acid plus formaldehyde yields fixed amino acid and water,
Source: Embalming: History Theory and Practice
Copyright 2000, McGraw-Hill

Many people picture jars of preserved frogs from biology class when they hear the word formaldehyde, and imagine that an embalmed body is like a jar of formaldehyde when buried. In fact, when burial takes place, the fluid has acted upon the tissues and the very little actual formaldehyde remains in the body.
Another misconception is that embalming preserves or mummifies the body for a very long time. When bodies are embalmed for funerals they receive much less formaldehyde than when they are prepared to be used as cadavers for medical students. Enough fluid is used to allow for the body to remain stable for a viewing within a week or so. If more fluid were used, the body would remain stable longer, but it would lose the pliable, life-like skin tone that recalls the appearance of the person in life. Embalming for funerals does not prevent the break down of tissues into their basic elements. This process is only delayed to allow for friends and family to say their goodbyes. Embalming for medical schools lasts longer, but is also temporary.
Formaldehyde gas can be dangerous if inhaled (or ingested, just like methyl alcohol), and this is an issue in the preparation room during embalming when the gas can be present in the air, but not a hazard for those who are near the body during viewing, of for the ground water in cemeteries because the formaldehyde bound within the fluid and formaldehyde gas released from it are no longer present.

Part 3, Stagecraft


Charles Cowling said...

This is fascinating, Patrick -- the chemistry of embalming. It is a staple criticism by the green lobby that an embalmed body releases formaldehyde into the ground as a pollutant. If this is not the case, I am surprised not to have encountered a rebuttal from the 'traditional' funeralists.

From now on I shall quote you on this. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Patrick, are you creating the graphics at the bottom of your page? I'm impressed.

briank said...

Another incredibly interesting post, Patrick. Is there a Part 3, or is this the conclusion?

Patrick McNally said...

Thanks Brian, there's at least one more in the hopper.

Patrick McNally said...

Thank you, yes I am creating the graphics at the bottom of the page. I'm glad you like them.

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