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Funeral Services Provider Blog

Viewing Without Embalming Part 1 of 2

A recent article in a funeral service trade publication makes reference to the viewing of Pope John Paul II with a suggestion that his body was un-embalmed.  None of us knows what was done (or not done) to preserve the Pope’s remains as there has been no official word from the Vatican.  But some observations from four days of public viewing and almost non-stop television coverage for 22 consecutive hours per day in a room without air conditioning make it unlikely that a cooled catafalque was entirely responsible for the stable condition of his remains.  From what was seen even on the last day of the public viewing, there were no signs of purging, swelling of the features or severe discolorations.  In addition, there were no reports by the media of obvious changes in the Pope’s appearance or any noticeable odor.  All of the above suggests some form of minimal chemical treatment.  The article goes on to recount his contact with an embalmer circa 1957 that prepared un-embalmed remains for viewing.  The article describes that embalmer’s preparation technique and associated fees.  The embalmer stated that “the body would remain stabilized in a carefully controlled refrigeration unit at approximately 35 degrees (we were one of the very few funeral homes that had commercial body refrigeration) for at least 24 hours.  This stabilizes and controls any decomposition.  Approximately eight hours (five hours of slight bodies) before preparation table.  About four hours later, we would carefully and completely towel the body dry, and again allow the body to rest until fully dry. (Note: this procedure allowed for a full four hours or more of presentation as the internal temperatures secured and stabilized any potential natural changes.)  Hair was dried if necessary and finished.  Feature setting nail care, hair styling and make-up were completed.  Tissue building injections and aspiration of gasses and fluids were accomplished as needed.”  This scenario as described takes 36 hours once the remains arrive at the funeral home. Can remains be prepared for viewing without embalming? The answer is that in some cases it can. This is prefaced by saying it depends on the condition of the remains, the time available to do the work and whether or not refrigeration is available to assist in the preparation (as mentioned in Hast’s article). Is it more difficult and challenging to prepare remains for viewing without the benefit of embalming? Without question. Today we see many remains arrive at the funeral home in some truly horrible conditions. This is probably unlike the situation that the embalmer faced nearly 50 years ago. Infectious diseases like hepatitis C, AIDS, CJD, MRSA and VRSA were not even heard of 50 years ago as well as sepsis which has been significantly on the rise for the last 10 years. Today, cases of infectious diseases, cancer (and some of its aggressive treatments), trauma, autopsies, obese individuals, organ and tissue donation and deaths shortly after surgery are the norm. These conditions leave the body with severe edema, skin slip, odor, purging, very large incisions that leak or severe emaciation. Trauma cases often have facial swelling, bruises and fractures. Proper and thorough embalming simply is the best way to restore the body to an acceptable appearance for viewing. The other issue that the embalmer mentions in the article is the availability of refrigeration. Although refrigeration is more available today than it was 50 years ago, it is still not the norm in every funeral home. Without refrigeration, this process will need to take place very quickly or not at all. The American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) defines embalming as the “process of chemically treating the dead human body to reduce the presence and growth of microorganisms, retard organic decomposition and restore an acceptable physical appearance,” The Federal Trade Commission also regulates under what circumstances that charges for embalming can be made to a family. How do we proceed when a family requests a viewing without embalming? It is my personal belief that prior to making any arrangements (with or without viewing) the remains should be in house and viewed by an active embalmers, not just someone with an embalmer’s license. This person understands the process of preparing remains for viewing and will be able to determine what is possible. There always needs to be communication between the funeral director making the arrangements and the embalmer if they are not one in the same person. This is one of those things that just seems to be a given but is routinely forgotten or ignored in many funeral homes. If the decision is made to make the arrangements with the family without the benefit of the remains being in house then the family should be told that a final decision will have to be made once the remains arrive at the funeral home. When a family makes a request for viewing without embalming the funeral director should attempt to find out what the family’s reasoning is for this request. This should not be an attempt to change the family’s mind but a necessity to better serve the family.

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