Education & Careers

An Overview of Embalming

Professional embalming was developed from the practice of the ancient Egyptians which is widely known as mummification. The procedure has greatly evolved and improved since its first practice. Nowadays, embalming is not only performed for preservation but also for sanitation of remains above any other reasons. Not to neglect various traditions and the whole aspect of the grieving process, the presentation of the remains of the deceased claims its place in the centre of the entire embalming procedure, especially here in Ireland. To achieve such results, it is vital that embalmers study and understand Human Anatomy and Physiology, Microbiology, biological processes and changes after death, disease conditions and embalming fluids chemistry among many others.

Modern day embalmers refer to the process as Hygienic Treatment. Embalmers use embalming fluids and surgical instruments to remove body fluids and to perform the hygienic treatment of remains. This procedure leaves the body in a sanitary condition which is fit for viewing during a wake or removal.

Work Activities

Embalming is performed for three main reasons- 1) temporary preservation, 2) presentation and 3) sanitation of remains. Embalmers generally perform two procedures in order to achieve these goals- Arterial Treatment and Cavity Treatment.

Arterial treatment involves making a small incision on the skin and lifting of vessel/s for injection and drainage. Body fluids is replaced by embalming chemicals which reduces bacterial and enzymatic activities in order to retard decomposition and disinfect or sanitize the body making it fit for viewing.

Cavity treatment is performed after arterial injection. A small incision is made above the umbilicus where a trocar is inserted to drain body fluids from the thoracic and abdominal cavities. The trocar is also used to make tiny holes in the visceral organs which will allow for the cavity fluid to saturate the outside and inside walls of the hollow organs within the trunk cavity.

All incisions are sutured and sealed after the two procedures. The body is then washed and dressed. Make-up or cosmetics is applied and hair is also styled to recreate the familiar image or look of the deceased. The hygienic treatment of the deceased must be the chief result of an embalming procedure but a good embalmer must be able to incorporate techniques within the usual procedure in order to achieve the closest image or look of the deceased that is familiar to his or her loved-ones, friends and relatives.

In some special cases, restorative work may be required. This mainly involves use of mortuary wax and special cosmetics.

Working Conditions

Embalmers often work long, irregular hours. They carry out the procedure in a designated place such as a mortuary and most of the time uses motorized pumps and special equipment to carry out the task.  Embalmers may take up full time employment in a funeral home. Working hours may vary but funeral homes based in the cities usually require employees to work 8 hours a day and 5 to 6 days a week. Other embalmers choose to work for themselves or with a funeral director on an on-call basis. This is generally referred to as ‘trade embalming’. Working hours also varies a lot because they may receive a call to remove remains in the middle of the night.

Embalmers occasionally come into contact with the remains of people who had contagious diseases. The possibility of infection cannot be denied but the risk can be greatly reduced by strictly following protocols and safety measures and by wearing complete proper protective clothing at all times.

Professional embalmers are expected to wear at least the minimum required protective clothing- scrubs, gown/apron, protective shoes or wellingtons, gloves, goggles and mask.

Required Education

Mortuary science programs usually include studies in anatomy, physiology, pathology, general microbiology, chemistry, disease conditions, embalming techniques and embalming standards or regulations.

Practical skills training must be completed under an experienced and licensed funeral director or embalmer. Under the Deathcare Academy Examinations Board of Mortuary Science requirements, a minimum of fifty bodies (20 of which must be post-mortem procedures) before one can be admitted to an Objective Structured Practical Examination (OSPE) set by the board.

Leaving cert students can start preparing for a career as an embalmer and funeral director by taking courses in biology and chemistry. Jobs for students in their transition year within funeral homes consist mostly of basic office work, maintenance and clean-up tasks, dressing and polishing of coffins, but these tasks can give the students a very background of the operation of funeral homes.

  • Recommended Courses in Secondary Schools: Biology and Chemistry
  • Vocational or Tertiary Programs: Anatomy and Physiology, Chemistry, Biology, Customer Service and Relations and Office Management.

Personal Qualities and Skills

It is important that aspiring embalmers will be able to have good knowledge of anatomy and physiology and be able to relate it to the practice. More importantly, you should be able to physically and emotionally handle any distressing situations. Many times you will encounter post-mortem cases where a pathologist has opened the cavities and removed the visceral organs. Also you may encounter bodies that had died in a road accident, fire or other traumatic cause.

Professional embalmers are also required to be able to practice confidentiality at all times in respect to the family and friends of the deceased. It is important that you have a caring nature and understands that your task is to carry out the wishes of those who can no longer speak for themselves. As an embalmer, you must possess a sensitive and caring nature but also have a creative and resourceful mind if the situation demands for it.

Pay and Opportunities (Courtesy of FAS)

Funeral directors provide employment in this area. There are many family owned firms throughout the country. Specialist work with disaster teams is also an option. Often work is part time and the embalmer can be self-employed. Pay varies widely depending on size and status of employer, and the employment status and experience of the worker. Experienced workers in this area can earn up to EUR60k per year while a salary of EUR35k per year is average.

Entry Routes and Training

Embalming practice in Ireland is not regulated by the government. Anyone can practice embalming without any formal instruction although most funeral directors nowadays prefer to employ somebody who has completed some study and skills training in Embalming or Mortuary Science. In Ireland, there are about three schools offering a course in Embalming studies. One school structure is currently in line with the standards and objectives of the PEAI.

Courses are also run in the United Kingdom and USA on embalming and funeral directing.

Qualifications

The government has no provisions for specific qualifications and requirements in order to enter this kind or work. A good knowledge of anatomy and embalming chemistry can be very helpful.

The Irish College of Funeral Directing and Embalming offers an Embalming Course through blended learning. Students who have successfully passed the DCEBMS Final Theory Exam and Objective Structured Practical Exam will eligible to apply for Full Membership of the PEAI and subsequently the European Association of Embalmers (EAE).