Embalming in Australia – What You Need to Know

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In this guide we’ll look at everything you need to know about the embalming process, the benefits of embalming, and when it is required in Australia. Specifically, we’ll cover the following topics:

  1. What is embalming?
  2. What is a partial embalm?
  3. When is embalming required in Australia?
  4. Is embalming a more hygienic option?
  5. How much does embalming cost in Australia?
  6. Cultural and historical considerations

1. What is Embalming?

Embalming is a process designed to better preserve the body and delay composition. It makes the body appear more presentable and life-like for viewings and visitations.

In the scheme of funeral costs, it is classified as an “additional service” that families can opt for when arranging a funeral service. For more information on funeral costs, see our Guide to Funeral Costs in Australia.

The embalming process generally involves the following steps:

Sanitising the body for embalming

Before any surgical or cosmetic work can be done on the body, it must first be sanitised by a thorough wash in disinfectant solution. After washing, the body is usually massaged and adjusted to reverse the effects of rigor mortis – the stage of death which causes the muscles in the body to stiffen and contract.

Arterial embalming

To complete the process of arterial embalming, all bodily fluids (such as blood) are removed from the body and replaced with embalming chemicals by pumping them through the arteries.

Cavity embalming

An alternative to arterial embalming is cavity embalming. During this process, an incision is made in the abdomen through which a sharp tool is used to puncture and drain the organs of fluid and gas. The cavity is then filled with the solution of embalming chemicals and re-sealed.

Embalming chemicals

Funeral directors, morticians and embalmers will use different chemicals for embalming. However, the solution is generally a mixture of formaldehyde, water, ethanol, methanol, phenol, glutaraldehyde and raspberry coloured dye to mimic a living skintone.

Cosmetic work

Finally, a range of cosmetic work is performed to prepare the body for viewing. This can include styling of the hair, makeup, dressing, setting the eyes closed and fixing the jaw closed.

Embalmer with Embalming Equipment
Embalmer with Embalming Equipment

2. What is Partial Embalming?

Like a full embalming, a partial embalming also improves the appearance of the deceased, though for a shorter period of time.

A partial embalming vs full embalming differs in that it is much faster to perform the process and the chemicals used will not be as strong. Typically, a partial embalming will make a visible improvement in appearance for a few days only.

3. When is Embalming Required in Australia?

In most cases, embalming is not required by law in Australia. If a funeral director is pressuring you into embalming or has included it as a service without discussing this with you, it’s a red flag that you might be speaking to a bad funeral director.

Embalming is generally only strictly required in the following circumstances:

  • above ground burials in a mausoleum, vault or crypt
  • if the body is being repatriated or transported overseas or interstate

For more information on above ground burials, see our Guide to Burials.

However, in addition to these cases, there are a number of circumstances where families may find it desirable to arrange for a partial or full embalming. In particular:

  • to make the body more presentable for a viewing or visitation
  • if there will be a long delay between the death and the funeral (i.e. several weeks)

4. Is Embalming a More Hygienic Option?

There is a common misconception that embalming is necessary to prevent the spread of disease, and that embalming a body is a hygienic practice. This simply is not true.

Studies and data released by the World Health Organisation and the Center for Disease Control confirm that embalming is not more hygienic, and there is no scientific or peer-reviewed study that has ever concluded that embalming reduces the spread of disease.

5. How Much Does Embalming Cost in Australia?

Analysing the itemised funeral prices of the 690+ funeral directors listed on our website, the relevant cost data is as follows:

  • Average cost of embalming: $766
  • Most expensive cost for embalming: $1,006.50
  • Cheapest cost for embalming: $450

Given that the average cost of a burial in Australia (not including cemetery fees) is $6,500, an additional $766 for a full embalming is a considerable extra cost. While it may be preferred by some families for relevant circumstances, you should keep in mind that it’s rarely required by law and should not feel pressured into embalming if you do not wish to.

6. Historical and Cultural Considerations

As you might expect, attitudes and practices of embalming have differed throughout history, and between religions and cultures.

In Australia, the practice of embalming is fairly uncommon unless strictly required by law or advised due to extended or delayed viewings.

Looking back in time, the history of embalming can be traced back more than 5,500 years to the ancient Egyptians who believed the body needed to be preserved for the afterlife. In contrast, the early Christians denounced the practice as a Pagan tradition and it is still not endorsed or widely practised by the Islamic or Jewish faiths today.

In contrast, embalming is the norm in the United States. The reason for this can be traced back to the Civil War when deceased soldiers would need to be embalmed in order to be transported back home. To give you an idea of how common the procedure is in the United States, each year more than 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde is used to embalm their deceased every year.

Finally, if you are considering a natural or green burial, the use of chemicals to preserve the body will not be permitted.

Egyptian painting depicting the ancient practice of embalming

We hope you have found this Guide to Embalming in Australia helpful. If you have any questions, please feel free to email us at support@gatheredhere.com.au or leave us a message in the comments section below.

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