Modern Embalming Techniques and Restorative Arts

Modern embalming techniques and restorative arts blend art and science to temporarily preserve a body. It enables a dignified display of the deceased in a coffin or casket for family and friends to say their goodbyes. Some critics have looked down on traditional practices as outdated, as they claim they pose health risks and environmental harm. Consequently, society is increasingly looking to embrace greener alternatives. 

The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) encourages funeral directors to explore and incorporate modern embalming techniques to ensure they deliver funeral services that respect and honor their client’s unique beliefs and preferences. 

Recommended course: Modern Restorative Arts and Embalming Techniques 

How does modern embalming work? 

Aside from the notable change in the demand for environmentally friendly funerals, the funeral industry is undergoing significant changes, including a departure from family-run businesses. Instead, the makeup of funeral services is changing, with a growing number of individuals, particularly women, from healthcare backgrounds opting for professional roles in this sector. 

Passing exams and adhering to a professional code of conduct are prerequisites to becoming a licensed funeral director or embalmer. This code encompasses responsibilities towards the family, the deceased, the public, the government, and the NFDA. A desairologist, or a specialist in the field of funeral cosmetology, also known as mortuary makeup, must complete a study course without needing to pass an exam.  

Modern embalming process and procedure 

History shows that the Egyptians were the first to practice embalming, providing a mummified body for the soul or spirit to reside. Due to its high cost, the procedure was used mainly for members of nobility and officials rather than ordinary citizens. Egyptian embalming techniques of the mummification process took a total of 70 days. 

Over the years, ongoing developments have improved procedures in sanitizing, preserving, and restoring a body. Modern embalming techniques take two to four hours. There are four main types of modern embalming procedures: 

  • Arterial embalming involves injecting embalming chemicals into the blood vessels. 
  • Cavity embalming uses a suction method of the internal fluids. 
  • Hypodermic embalming injects embalming chemicals under the skin.
  • Surface embalming is in addition to the above techniques and involves visibly restoring the body. 

There are no shortcuts to achieving successful results. They are only attainable through a deep understanding of proven techniques and a foresight to anticipate potential problems during an embalming procedure.  

Special embalming cases 

Certain bodies require additional specialized treatment, like those from trauma, drownings, freezing, accidents, and badly decomposed bodies. Additionally, the rising prevalence of bariatrics, a medical field focused on obesity, necessitates adapting modern embalming techniques for specific cases. These situations all present significant challenges for embalmers, restorative artists, and desairologists. 

The devastating impact of formaldehyde on funeral workers 

Current trends are moving away from using hazardous chemicals in embalming. However, since its tissue-hardening properties were discovered in 1893, the most effective embalming fluid of choice continues to be formaldehyde.  

Exposure routes occur via gas, vapor, or skin contact. The Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) classifies formaldehyde as carcinogenic with impact on the immune system. Harmful effects caused by excessive exposure to formaldehyde can trigger severe allergic reactions affecting the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. Extended contact can lead to respiratory problems resembling asthma and skin issues, such as dermatitis and itching.  

Best practices for formaldehyde management in funeral homes 

Ongoing research and development by the NFDA and the OSHA aim to establish safety guidelines for funeral personnel during embalming techniques. In the meantime, knowing the latest formaldehyde safety guidelines for permissible exposure limits and maximum exposure time in the workplace is crucial. 

A vital aspect is to ensure the installation of efficient ventilation systems in preparation rooms. This is crucial in minimizing health hazards associated with formaldehyde exposure in funeral homes. 

Other chemicals used in embalming and restorative arts 

Egyptian embalming techniques utilized various concoctions for distinct purposes. Some were used to embalm the head, others to cleanse the body. Specific mixtures treated the liver and stomach. Others prepared bandages for wrapping the body. “Ancient Egyptian embalmers had extensive chemical knowledge. They knew what substances to put on the skin to preserve it, even without knowing about bacteria and other microorganisms.” (Bruce Bower, Science News, February 1, 2023). 

Later solutions included alcohol and arsenic, while modern embalming techniques employ a variety of chemicals for specific stages.  

What are green funerals? 

According to an NFDA report, almost 54% of Americans surveyed are intrigued to learn more about green funerals. Consequentially, funeral homes offer green products, services, and funeral packages. 

But what is a green funeral? The Green Burial Council, a non-profit organization founded in 2005, defines a green funeral as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.” (Green Burial Glossary, 2019). 

Funeral homes offer different levels of green funerals due to costs and limited availability of local green burial sites and eco-embalming. People considering eco-friendly alternatives may opt for shrouds, bio-degradable caskets or urns, and trees for burial markers. 


One hurdle to an environmentally friendly funeral is the toxicity of embalming fluids. There are arguments for and against the necessity of embalming. Many believe it is needless and harmful to the environment and workers. In response to a growing environmental concern, embalming fluid manufacturers are actively developing formaldehyde-free alternatives for modern ecobalming techniques. 

Modern restorative arts 

Restorative arts is an extension of modern embalming techniques, with the purpose of preparing the body to an acceptable viewing state. It is the stage that reconstructs the face or body for presentation. Ancient techniques included stuffing sawdust into a corpse’s mouth to plump out hollow cheeks.  

The art was formally accepted in 1945, when the NFDA presented the discipline as an essential element, enabling mourners to have a positive viewing experience to facilitate their grieving process. 

Minor restoration includes repairing skin blemishes and discoloration. Extensive restorative arts can be complex, requiring a skilled restorative artist experienced in various techniques. Examples are reconstructing large tumors and disfiguration from burns. 


The final step in the embalming procedure is desairology or mortuary makeup. It involves care and attention to the hair, skin, and nails in the funeral home preparation room. People responsible for funeral cosmetology are state-licensed cosmetologists and barbers who have obtained an additional certificate qualifying them to provide their services in a funeral setting. 

Desairology, combined with modern restorative arts and embalming techniques, aims to provide the bereaved with a final comforting image of their deceased loved one.