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What is Embalming? And is it Legally Required for a Funeral?

Anita Chauhan
Anita Chauhan
September 2nd 2022 - 7 minute read
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Contrary to common belief, embalming is not legally required in Ontario, or in Canada, for most deaths, but it is a widely accepted practice. Here is the low down on embalming.

Anita Chauhan

Let’s discuss embalming. There is a lot of information, or rather, misinformation around this subject so here are the straight facts.

What is embalming?

Embalming is the act of preserving human remains by treating them with chemicals to help delay decomposition.  This is usually conducted with the intention of making the deceased more suitable for public and private viewing or visitation, or to keep the body preserved for medical purposes.

Embalming is also typically needed when there will be a period of time between when death occurs and burial or the cremation process takes place. The process is also needed when there is a viewing or a wake in which the body will be held in observance. In this case, makeup and cosmetic applications will be added, which will also require embalming.

What are the steps in embalming?

Embalming is a multi-step process conducted by a licensed funeral director in Canada. Here are the steps in embalming:

  1. The body is washed with a disinfectant. Arms and legs are massaged to soften the stiffened joints and muscles. The body is shaved as necessary. The eyes are closed using glue or plastic eye caps that sit on the eyeball and hold the eyelid in place. The lower jaw is secured in place using either wire or in some cases it is sewed into position. The mouth is also adjusted into an appropriate expression.
  2. The surgical portion of embalming process is next. In this process, blood is drained from the body and replaced with formaldehyde-based chemicals. The embalming solution can also contain chemical such as , methanol, ethanol, glutaraldehyde, phenol, water and coloured dye.
  3. Next an incision is made in the lower part of the abdomen and a sharp surgical instrument called a trocar is inserted into the abdomenal cavity. The organs in the chest and abdomen are punctured. This drains them of liquid and liberates any accumulated gas.
  4. Formaldehyde-based chemicals are also injected into the organs in the body cavities.
  5. The incision is then sutured and the surgical embalming process is considered fully complete.
  6. Finally, cosmetics are applied to the body. Hair is also washed and set based on family preference. This part of the process is conducted only for display purposes.
  7. The body is also dressed in any clothing that has been provided by the family.
  8. The full embalmed body is then placed in a casket and prepared for visitation or service, as required.

Cosmetics without chemical embalming

Note that a deceased person's family may choose to have cosmetics applied, have hair styled, and have the body washed and dressed without chemical embalming. In this case refridgeration is used for temporary body preservation.

How long does preservation from embalming last?

The preservation effects of the embalming process can last from a few days to about a week. This changes depending on the type of chemicals used in the process, their strength and how they are implemented.

With modern methods such as refrigeration, embalming is not the only method to ensure that your loved one’s remains are being preserved until cremation or burial.

How does embalming fluid work?

Embalming fluid acts to denature the proteins in a body's cells. That means that they cannot act as a nutrient source for bacteria. Embalming fluid also acts as a sanitizer and kills bacteria.

The chemicals formaldehyde or glutaraldehyde through a chemical reaction with cells creates the simulated appearance of blood flowing under the skin through colour changes. The chemicals also hardens and dehydrates the tissues.

Various chemicals are mixed and then used to create an arterial solution to aid in preservation. This mixture varies based on if the body is being embalmed for a viewing or for lengthy transportation (typically across borders).

An embalmer uses 3.8 litres (1 gallon)  of embalming solution for every 22.7 lbs of body weight (50 pounds). So a body weighing 91 kg or 200 lbs would require 90 litres or 4 gallons of embalming solution.

Where did embalming originate?

The earliest forms of embalming can be traced back to the time of the ancient Egyptians, who included similar practices in their burial rituals and rites.

Around the 19th century, medical research led Italian and French scientists to develop techniques that allowed them to inject preservatives into the veins and arteries. This development made its way over to the U.S. during the Civil War, where the practice was frequently used to help delay the composition of bodies of those soldiers who had died in combat. By injecting preservatives into the veins, it allowed the bodies to be transported long distances before their burial.  

In fact, President Abraham Lincoln was one of the earliest adopters of this practice. Following his assassination his body was embalmed to allow for public viewing across the country.

Read on to learn more about what you the legal requirements are when it comes to embalming a body.

Is embalming legally required?

Contrary to common belief, embalming is not legally required in Ontario or Nova Scotia (where Eirene provides cremation care), or in any other province or territory in Canada, for most deaths, yet it is still a widely accepted practice.  

If a body in Nova Scotia will be viewed in a public ceremony such as a viewing or visitation after 72 hours of death, provincial regulations require that it be embalmed.

In the case of a delayed cremation or burial, embalming is an alternative that can be substituted in place of refrigeration in many parts of the country, but there are some exceptions. Some provincial legislation across Canada requires embalming if the body will not reach the place of burial (or cremation) within 72 hours of their passing.

Embalming is required if a body is transported across international borders and is required for a body to leave the province of Nova Scotia.

Use your discretion and understand your options before agreeing to additional costs or potentially putting harmful chemicals into the environment.

In the case of funeral homes, many will not allow a public viewing of a body without it being embalmed first, but there is still no specific law that requires that a body must be embalmed and set in a “lifelike” condition for display.  

Depending on the style of a funeral or burial arrangements, there may be benefits to embalming. Beyond that, there are arguments against the chemicals that are used in the embalming process. Some believe that the chemicals used to embalm the body can be detrimental to the environment. Some embalmers offer special embalming methods that use no formaldehyde, a component that is traditionally found in embalming chemicals.  

All told, embalming, while a widely held practice, is not necessarily needed for all funerals. Use your discretion and understand your options before spending unnecessary money or potentially putting harmful chemicals into the environment.

Interested in learning more about the end-of-life process and funeral services? Check out our blog for more information.

Have a question about embalming and funerals?

Ask our experts at Eirene about embalming or any question you may have about funerals or cremation. Email us or call us 24/7 via our contact page.

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