Yet Another False Scare in the News

The BBC News website recently carried an article entitled ‘EU embalming fluid ban to change UK funerals‘ and claimed that “grieving loved ones may no longer be able to pay their last respects to dead relatives when the EU bans the chemical in embalming fluid.”

Sadly the article was not well-researched, and contained many inaccuracies which served only to scare those who are in desperate need of better information.

Quite where the BBC obtained the information for the article is questionable. It may be “the fear of Britain’s funeral directors” that if the use of formaldehyde is restricted it will be the end of embalming as we know it now, but isn’t that a good thing?

Embalming has its place. There are certain instances when it is necessary, even. For example, when a person who has died is being transported abroad, regulations state that the body must be embalmed.

However, in the vast majority of cases, embalming is simply a waste of time. It is an invasive process, that if described in detail to most people would be shunned immediately. To say that “the culture around Christian burials and cremations will have to change” is absurd.

The only people who will suffer as a result of restricting embalming are greedy funeral directors who tell their clients that embalming is a necessity if they wish to see their loved one between death and the funeral.

We frequently meet prospective clients who have been told by corporate funeral directors that embalming is advisable, or even necessary. This is simply a sales tactic to increase the client’s spend. When we tell clients that embalming is, in the majority of cases, totally unnecessary, they respect us for being honest, and generally stay with us as funeral directors.

To claim that the length of time between death and a funeral is increasing because of delays in obtaining paperwork, leading to a more prevalent practice of embalming in recent years is complete rubbish.

The delay in funerals is, in many cases, caused by large corporations taking over small funeral directors, and then having a smaller number of staff and vehicles to conduct a larger number of funerals.

Funeral directors tell clients that there are delays at crematoria, and many clients believe them. Some don’t, and come to see us to ask the same question. We tell them the truth, and very often then arrange the funeral within two weeks.

It is rare that we see any significant deterioration between death and a funeral. As long as someone who has died is cooled efficiently and within around 18 hours of death, the bacteria in the body cannot survive, and therefore the process is slowed sufficiently.

There is a strong case that it is unhelpful to see someone “with lifelike appearance” after he or she has died, and that a gradual acceptance of death is much easier if natural deterioration is seen. This does not mean decay or decomposition, but small changes such as dryness of the lips, highlighting of the bone structure around the eyes, and pallor of the skin on the hands and face.

“Embalming remains a common funeral choice in the UK” because it is sold as a necessity, to help corporate funeral directors increase their profits. We know of some companies who incentivise their staff to sell embalming, and reward them for doing so.

We (and many other funeral directors we know) strongly contest the ‘briefing note from the industry’ which says “for the close viewing of the deceased to take place, it is essential for the deceased to be embalmed so the person viewing is safe, and that the deceased’s remains are fixed and stable and do not chemically break down or decompose and/or release embarrassing odours from decomposition.”

If you were given two choices, either that a relative could be treated with gentle respect, washed, dressed and left in peace, or that he or she could be pumped full of toxic chemicals and have a long metal spike pushed violently into all the internal organs, would you really opt for the latter?