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

What is Embalming? And is it Legally Required for a Funeral?
Contrary to common belief, embalming is not legally required in Ontario, or in Canada, for most deaths, but it is a widely accepted practice.
3 minute read

Let’s chat embalming. There is a lot of information, or rather, misinformation around this subject, and we at Eirene would love to share the straight facts with you.

What is embalming?

Embalming is the act of preserving human remains by treating them with chemicals to help stave off decomposition.  This is usually done with the intention of making the deceased more suitable for public and private viewing, or keeping the body preserved for medical purposes. According to Wikipedia:

“The three goals of embalming are sanitization, presentation, and preservation, with restoration being an important additional factor in some instances.”

When performed successfully, embalming can help preserve the body for many years.

“Embalming has a very long and cross-cultural history, with many cultures giving the embalming process a greater religious meaning.”

Embalming is also typically needed when there will be a period of time between when death occurs and 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.

The effects of the embalming process can last from a few days to around 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.

Where did embalming originate?

To understand a little bit more about the practice of embalming and why it’s so heavily marketed today, it would good to learn a little bit about the practice’s history.

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 found techniques that allowed them to inject preservatives into the veins and arteries. This development made its way over to the US during the Civil War, where the practice it was frequently used to help delay the composition of bodies of those soldiers who had passed in water. 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 are actually legally required to do.

Is embalming legally required?

Contrary to common belief, embalming is not legally required in Ontario, or in Canada, for most deaths, but it is a widely accepted practice. 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 they will not reach their place of burial within 72 hours of their passing.

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 states that a body must be embalmed and set in a “lifelike” condition to be able to do this.  

Depending on the style of your 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 entirely necessarily needed for all bodies. 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.