Over the course of the next few weeks, Congressional Cemetery will be sharing information about green burials and the funeral industry’s role in the sustainability movement. The second section, Part Two, focuses on embalming and preserving a corpse.
Preserving a Corpse/Embalming
Embalming is used as a way for a corpse to be prepared by chemicals in order for a body to be preserved for extended viewing. The practice of embalming became popular during the Civil War, and it has been popular ever since. Surprisingly, embalming has not changed much over the past 100 years, and toxic chemicals, such as heavy metals and formaldehyde-based solutions, are still major components of the embalming practice. Many people are unaware that embalming is not required by law anywhere in the United States. Furthermore, all bodies eventually decompose after death, regardless of whether the body has been embalmed or not. With that being said, many people still choose to embalm their loved one’s body for viewing.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified formaldehyde, a main chemical used in embalming, as a human carcinogen that is dangerous to people. For example, inhaling formaldehyde can increase a person’s risk for myeloid leukemia and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), which is especially dangerous for employees who work in funeral homes. There are also concerns about the neurological and respiratory consequences of formaldehyde-based chemicals. Embalming fluids also contain phenols, methanol, and dyes. The strength of embalming fluid varies in strength from 5 percent to 50 percent, and the embalming fluid is typically introduced into the vascular system of the deceased person. In addition to embalming fluids, there are also topical sprays, gels, and powders that can are used to preserve a corpse.
Many embalming chemical companies have created formaldehyde-free fluids that can be utilized to preserve the body, which are both safer for employees who work in funeral homes and ultimately safer and better for the environment. Additionally, ‘green’ or eco-embalming fluid not only still preserves and disinfects the body, but it also helps clear discoloration of the corpse. The objective of eco-embalming is to delay the body’s natural decay process, not to stop it. Eco-embalming solutions have low fuming properties, but note that many of these embalming fluids are still toxic. There is only one embalming chemical company, The Champion Chemical Company, that produces a non-toxic embalming fluid, powder, and spray, which is approved by the Green Burial Council. The chemical, called the Enigma Eco-embalming chemical, is relatively safe to use and emits a vanilla or clove odor. The Enigma Eco-embalming fluid contains vanillic aldehyde, guaiacol, eugenol, and propylene glycol. Eco-embalming chemicals do not make the deceased body as rigid as traditional formaldehyde-based solutions, allowing families to keep the remains in an acceptable state for viewing for 2-3 days. An added benefit of using Eco-embalming fluid is that the chemicals will have a minimal impact on the earth.
There are other alternatives that can be used to help preserve the body. The National Home Funeral Alliance recommends the use of polymer refrigerants due to their long life, reusability, lack of off-gassing and condensation, size versatility, and ease of activation and use. The polymer refrigerant sheets can stay effective for up to 3-4 hours once activated. When the body cools, the time of effectiveness extends to the extent where the use of polymer refrigerants is no longer required.
Dry ice, the solid form of carbon dioxide, can also be used to help cool and preserve the body. An advantage of using dry ice is that it can reach a lower temperature than water ice and does not leave any residue. However, dry ice is extremely cold and sublimates into carbon dioxide gas. Dry ice should also not be handled without the use of protective gloves. While carbon dioxide is not toxic, it can build up pressure and change the chemistry of the air so there is a lower percentage of oxygen in the room. The body absorbs most of the cooling from the dry ice during the first day of use, so dry ice does not necessarily always need to be used on the second day. However, dry ice will likely need to be used on the third day.
An Australian company has created a nontoxic, FDA-approved product called Techni-ice, which is reusable, safe to use at home, and will not emit any carbon dioxide.
Other alternatives include: opening windows, relying on refrigeration, or using air conditioning to preserve the body. The temperature required to keep a body from decaying above ground for three days before a burial is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Before the Civil War, people used the colder temperatures to help preserve the body after death. An extra benefit for these alternatives is that these options are generally less expensive than embalming.
Webster, Lee, ed. Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service. Green Burial Council International.