Hello all, I’ve decided to answer another reader question. Yes, I am a freelance/on-call/trade embalmer, and I also do removals and run errands and meet with families and work services. I can accept or decline assignments at will. I can be on call for weeks at a time or not at all. I work for everyone and for no one…well, I work for the families of those I take care of. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

I was thinking that I would like to do SOMETHING like a home funeral – not just to save money but also just because it seems like it would make things more personal…I guess the funeral doesn’t have to be in my home, it could be anywhere. Maybe a park even?

You probably won’t have any luck with an open-casket or no-casket service in a public park. A memorial or scattering service, sure. I have seen occasional open casket services, with embalmed bodies only, in school gymnasiums, performing arts centers, and other community event places.

Are there options for embalming that are less environmentally damaging?

There is an embalming fluid called Enigma that is formaldehyde-free and biodegradable. [Industry pros, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.] I have never used it because the one time I tried to – because I had a jaundiced case and some embalmers experiment with formaldehyde-free fluids for these bodies – it clogged the embalming machine and I had to dump it out. [Note: jaundice – the yellowing of the skin, eyes and gums – is common in cases with liver or kidney failure and is caused by the buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin interacts with formaldehyde and converts to biliverdin (sp?) which not only neutralizes the formaldehyde but also stains the skin a dark green. So now you know.]

If I want to NOT embalm a body, then that has some effect on the timing if I want an open casket. I read on some website that you can keep things on ice to drag this out, but I guess even then there are limits. This might sound crazy but is there an option for the ancient Egyptian method where you pull out the insides to delay things even more?

There are way too many factors that influence decomposition to be able to give you a time estimate on when an unembalmed body will “go bad.” Most US states have laws regarding how long a body can be out of refrigeration without embalming once the funeral home has assumed custody. For example, in my state, a family can keep a body at home for up to 72 hours after death, but once the funeral home picks up the body, that body can only be out of refrigeration without being embalmed for 6 hours. In some states it is 4 hours. Nothing magical happens in six vs four hours, but states have to set a limit somewhere.

Generally, if Mom dies at home under “normal” conditions and you want to wait a day or so before calling the funeral home, and they pick her up and put her in refrigeration, she’ll be fine to view several times over several more days without embalming (though the funeral home staff will be irritated at having to drag her out of the cooler over and over again). Decomposing bodies are simply not all that common in the funeral business, as strange as that sounds. I might see one every month.

If you want viewing without embalming, you’re probably fine. You’re fine if you didn’t find her for a day before you called us. You’re fine if she died face down (though cosmetics would be advised). Over several days, you might notice changes in the skin. It will be very pale, possibly grayish. The fingertips and lips may turn purple. Many families speak of being fine with that when they just accept it as a part of death; therefore a natural part of life.

Funeral homes are required by law to refrigerate bodies at a certain temperature, but in reality, if you left someone out overnight and just didn’t leave the heat on, during a typical northwest fall or winter, the body would be fine. I’d never do this or advocate it; I’m just saying, it would not end in disaster.

Is there any…leakage after a funeral director sorts out the business – whether or not there’s embalming?

Every case has leakage. (Sorry…but it was one of the questions!) Some have a lot more than others, and some have more…types than others.

Brain purge. Had to go there first. In head trauma cases, there may be brain matter leaking from the ears or nose. With internal organ or circulatory system trauma, embalming fluid can leak from the person’s mouth while the fluid is being injected. Bodies frequently purge from the mouth when picked up from the place of death, when being put into the refrigerator, or during embalming. Many times, the purge material resembles coffee grounds in liquid. We must document all forms and places of purge in our case reports.

Urination/defecation do not stop with death. Or days after death. Or even with embalming. Sorry. Cotton; string; diapers; special plastic plugs; cauterizing chemicals and occasionally even sutures.

But all this can be controlled! I willingly chose to control these processes for a living! I use a nasal aspirator on almost all bodies who are to be viewed, whether or not they are embalmed. That will take care of anything in the nose or throat, and then I use forceps to stuff cotton – which may be saturated with a cauterant or a disinfectant – into the nose, ears and mouth. Even if the mouth has been sutured closed, I can keep stuffing the nose for days.

During what is known as cavity embalming, where we treat the abdominal and thoracic cavities after the arterial injection is completed, we also aspirate any fluids that remained in the lungs, heart, throat, stomach, bladder and bowels. This also releases any trapped gases. This can be done on unembalmed bodies, but families with personal objections to embalming probably would not consent to this being done. Actually, many families are not told this is done at all, because no embalming chemicals are used. I’ve seen some embalmers aspirate a direct cremation case if the body was gaseous or purging and expected to be with us for a few days. I don’t agree with this at all; I think families have a right to know if we are cutting into their loved one. I wouldn’t even remove a pacemaker without informing the family beforehand that I needed to do so.

But, if you know what aspirating a body entails and you want a viewing, I’d still recommend you allow it. I like to be overly cautious, although I don’t use those special plastic plugs unless I think I really have to.

Even if I cremate, there will probably have to be some kind of a box for transportation and showing if that happens. Do people get to choose the materials usually? Plywood/MDF/cardboard are they all options?

I believe all US crematories require that the body be placed on or in a rigid, combustible container rather than being put directly on the hearth. So yes, you will need a box, and you are allowed to buy or build your own and the crematory cannot reject it as long as it encases the body and will burn. Most direct cremation families are fine with the “alternative container,” which is a nice way of describing a cardboard box. Sometimes it’s a wooden tray with a cardboard top. But if you are planning on a viewing out of the funeral home before the cremation, no funeral home will accept a cardboard box; the casket or container must have handles and be able to hold the weight of the body. In these cases, I would recommend the Kosher casket, which is all wood and somewhat lightweight and inexpensive. It’s used for Jewish people, but non-Jews often use it and just toss the star that comes with it, as well as the statement from the Rabbi. Or, if a family is so inclined, they can build something nearly identical out of any type of wood or wood veneer.

Should I have someone I’ve already vetted out to help make this a reality? I don’t have a lawyer’s number on my phone but maybe a funeral director…

If you are a single adult with no dependents, I recommend visiting a few funeral homes and asking for a tour. Keep note of the places that seemed accommodating and encouraging, and discuss your plans with some of the directors you meet.

(If you ask to see the prep room and they say no, it’s because there’s blood on the walls. They’ll say it’s because they have bodies in there but really it’s because there’s blood on the walls. If there were really bodies in there, they could just be wheeled out.)