Embalming — Your questions answered

Embalming is an invasive and unnecessary process if replacing a person's bodily fluids with chemicals

Ideas and Guidance

Six minute read

Poppy’s practises a natural approach to caring for the dead. We don’t routinely offer invasive procedures, such as embalming. In this blog, Poppy's funeral directors Amy and Hannah answer some common questions about embalming and explain the differences between embalming and natural care.

How do you talk with people about the care that Poppy’s provides?

“Right from the very first conversation, when someone first gets in touch with Poppy’s, we explain how we look after people naturally by keeping them cool in our on-site mortuary,” says Amy.

“We pick it up later in the client meeting with the funeral director as well,” adds Hannah. “If we're asked, we explain what people look like once they’ve been embalmed, what’s different and what’s not.

Read about what happens in a client meeting.

Does embalming make a person look more ‘lifelike’?

Some people consider embalming because they worry about their person’s mouth or eyes being open. They might look to embalming as a way of making the person who has died look more recognisable, comfortable and lifelike. But this isn’t necessary.

“Many of us have lost connection with the way that dead people look, as fewer people now die at home,” says Hannah. “We think dead people will look like what we see in the media, in films or on TV. But they usually look very normal and natural.”

“For example, people often die with their mouths open. It’s quite natural and comfortable. I describe it as how someone might look snoozing in their chair in front of the telly.

“Whether someone’s eyes or mouth are open depends on many different factors. It is possible have eye caps put under the eyelids, which are a bit like plastic contact lens, to close the eyes. You have to be careful though, eyes can get quite dry and delicate. You might not always have the result that you want.

“From a distance, embalming may look ‘better’ but when you touch someone, it doesn’t feel quite right.”

Can you visit someone who has not been embalmed?

At Poppy’s, we enable people to visit, touch and spend time with the person who has died if they wish. It’s not about viewing that person, it’s about visiting them.

Sometimes people are anxious about visiting because they don’t know what to expect, or they have been told that visiting someone who has been cared for naturally would be too upsetting for them.

We believe in people making their own decisions and do everything we can to make sure they are prepared for a visit.

Amy and Hannah know from experience that visiting someone who has been cared for naturally can be transformative.

In particular, Amy remembers one woman who had been told by the hospital that she couldn’t see her sister because of how she looked after death.

“The woman had scoliosis — she was bent over after she died because that was how she had looked in life. Seeing her looking so familiar was comforting for the surviving sister.

“We wouldn’t ever stop relatives or friends visiting, but we would tell them about what they were going to see. We are factual. We don’t judge or pre-empt how people are going to feel or what meaning there is for them. We simply describe clearly and compassionately what to expect.”

For many people, visiting someone in our care can be an experience of peace and relief, especially if the last time they saw that person, they were ill or in pain.

“It can be calmer, less scary, once someone has died, than when they are dying,” reflects Amy. “There are no tubes, and the person is no longer in pain. People often say they are so glad they visited.”

What differences can you see between someone who is embalmed and someone who is cared for naturally?

There are visible differences between someone who is embalmed, and someone who is cared for naturally. However, these vary from person to person, and how someone looks after death can also be affected by how they died or by any medication they were on.

However, Amy and Hannah can share what they’ve seen in caring for people at Poppy’s.

“There’s a common misconception that dead people are very stiff,” says Amy. “But actually embalming stiffens people. If you are dressing someone who has been cared for naturally, they don’t feel stiff.”

“Someone will also look more plumped up because the embalming fluid is put into the body before the blood is taken out,” adds Hannah. “The embalming fluid is tinted to try to keep the colour in the person’s face, but the resulting colour can really vary.

“With embalming, the mouth can look quite stretched out, as the jaw is padded and the mouth is sewn together to keep it shut.”

“Without embalming, the person’s colour can vary too,” continues Amy. “Sometimes they look just like they did in life, or they can appear paler as gravity means that the blood gathers at the back of the head.

“If someone has died in an unusual position, they may be darker on one side. But they are likely to look familiar, similar to how they looked in their last illness or in the hospice.

“Natural changes do happen — some are immediate, but most are slow, and take place over the course of weeks. In the first few hours the skin can become pale, and someone's expression and position will be relaxed. If you are with the person shortly after their death, you will see these changes happen. Rigor mortis, where muscles contract, may set in after few hours but they will loosen again within a few days.

“Over the coming weeks, at a different pace depending on each person, the eyes naturally sink back and lose their brightness; the nails darken and the lips, tip of the nose and the edges of the ears dry out.”

What does natural care involve?

Choosing not to embalm doesn’t mean choosing to do nothing. It means choosing to care for someone naturally, ensuring that they look their best, as you might if they were still alive.

“When someone comes to us who has not shaved for weeks, we can shave them. People often thank us for that. We can wash someone’s hair, do their make-up and nail polish, dress them in their favourite clothes, or put a bit of lip balm on their lips,” says Hannah.

Why does this matter?

“There’s value in seeing the truth,” concludes Amy. “We emphasise the importance of giving children the facts about death in an age-appropriate way and not using euphemisms, the same should be true for adults.”

Read more — Embalming should be about consent and why we don’t use euphemisms to talk about death.

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