Embalming is almost never required by law, not even for viewing purposes. Many funeral homes, churches and other places where viewing often takes place may have their own policies regarding viewing of unembalmed bodies, but these are not laws. For example, most funeral homes restrict public viewing of an unembalmed body and limit it to immediate family only.
A few religions prohibit or discourage embalming, and Judaism is one of them. My limited understanding of Jewish funeral rites is that they encourage heavy community involvement; have simple services without ostentatious floral or other displays; and desire that the body return to the earth as quickly as possible. Their custom is to bury within 24 hours of death, often necessitating much overtime from the funeral director and physician, since we cannot bury without a signed death certificate. They buy a simple pine casket that was manufactured with no metal parts and not on the Sabbath.
However, there are three situations where embalming is required by law: (1) public viewing of a body that expired from a communicable disease [even though this makes little sense]; (2) bodies being internationally shipped and (3) bodies requiring long holding periods before burial in facilities that do not have refrigeration available. In these cases, we must go against the wishes of the Jewish faith and embalm the body.
It is very important to the Jewish people that the WHOLE person be buried, and much of a person’s body fluids are lost during the embalming process. In the rare event we have to embalm a Jewish person, we are to make sure that all drained blood is collected and saved for burial, including blood wiped from instruments, floors or surfaces. Additionally, when we drain the thoracic and abdominal cavity of fluids, we are to save these for burial with the person.
We had a Jewish person, active duty military, who was being flown to Israel, so I was given the rare task of carrying out the embalming process according to his faith. I am the only person (outside of those who work in Jewish-only funeral homes) I know who has done this. I had an intern working under my license, and I told him this would probably be the only time in his entire career he would see something like this.
So we began…we set up buckets, towels and sheets all around the room. We drained the blood as usual, but instead of running into the sink, it was all collected in a bucket. When the bucket became full, we would label it with the person’s name and then get another bucket. Whenever we wiped up blood, we would throw the towel in the bucket.
A process that normally takes a couple of hours took us all day, but I can proudly say that not one drop of blood or other fluid was missed. “We seriously have to do this?!” he kept asking me. Yes. Yes, we do. It is very important to their tradition. We had buckets full of blood and bloody towels and sheets lined up all around the room, and I moved them all into the cooler with little notes stuck all over them reminding the rest of the staff not to dispose of them.
Finally the mortuary affairs coordinator told us the casket would be arriving shortly and he would be by to inspect the body, which is required for all active military cases. The military pays for the casket but only gives you two choices: wood or metal. The wood is some kind of dark hardwood, and the metal is a kind of ugly gray color that looks cheap. The wood definitely looks nicer, but is still not kosher because it contains metal parts.
I saw they had ordered the metal casket for him, which confused me. But I thought to myself, well, maybe this is just for the transport and his family will be getting him the Jewish casket when he arrives in Israel.
So we casketed the body, and when the officer arrived, I explained to him that he had been embalmed according to the Jewish tradition and that all his bodily fluids had been appropriately collected and packaged to go in the casket with him.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said. “Turns out he’s not even Jewish. We had the wrong information. Sorry about that!”