What is an Embalmer?

Also known as: Licensed Embalmer.

An important and necessary job that many people never think about is that of an embalmer. The name may bring up visions of a dank and creepy morgue filled with stereotypical dark characters. The vision is highly inaccurate however. Those who work in this industry are skilled, dedicated and caring individuals who see their profession as a way to treat the deceased and their families with dignity and respect. In recent years several reality shows have given television viewers an honest look at what it is like to run a funeral home. They are often a family-run business, carried on for many generations. Embalming is considered an art and a science, and it is a highly respected profession.

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What does an Embalmer do?

Although the practice of embalming goes back to ancient Egypt, it became more popular in America after the Civil War. Not only did people want to have a last look at their loved ones before burial, modern notions of health and sanitation viewed embalming as important to community health. During the past 30 years embalming has become common in most countries. The funeral industry itself has grown and is now a necessary and lucrative part of modern society around the world. Embalming practices differ according to culture, although regulations in many countries involve specific requirements that must be followed regardless of culture.

When a person dies, the embalmer prepares the body for burial. This is not done with long-term preservation as a goal, but simply to prevent deterioration during the period before the funeral and to improve the condition of the body, should family members wish a viewing. The work can be very creative and artistic, finding ways to restore bodies to a natural appearance. It involves working with precision tools and instruments, following rules in a highly organized process. Sometimes the embalmer also serves as funeral director, caring for all aspects of funeral preparation and helping families complete necessary paperwork.

Tasks of an embalmer include:

  • cosmetic or restorative work to improve appearance
  • post-trauma facial reconstruction
  • embalming and preserving the body, removing body fluids and injecting preservative chemicals, disinfecting and sanitizing
  • dressing the deceased and placing the body in the casket
  • keeping records and assisting in funeral home maintenance

Some of the personal characteristics that are important for an individual considering this career include:

  • physical strength and stamina
  • emotional stability and good mental health
  • an interest in science, art, and clinical or medical topics
  • good manual dexterity
  • interpersonal skills and a compassionate and caring attitude
  • good time-management ability
  • understanding and respect for different cultures and religious beliefs

How to become an Embalmer

Many countries do not have specific educational requirements to become an embalmer, although there are certain school subjects that are very helpful, such as cosmetology studies, anatomy, science, biology, chemistry, and language arts. Although many embalmers learn as part of a family business, licensing regulations in countries such as the U.S. or Canada involve specific educational requirements.

Certification in the U.S. requires at least a bachelor or associate degree in mortuary science. These programs include courses in embalming and restorative techniques, as well as ethics, grief counseling, business law, and funeral services. An apprenticeship under the supervision of a licensed funeral director is also necessary, lasting from one to three years. National and State board examinations must be taken.

In Canada minimum education is one year of post-secondary training, but most employers in the profession prefer a two-year Embalmer Licensure program or the equivalent. Several online/distance programs are available. These require a high school diploma and minimum marks in biology and chemistry for acceptance, and students need to be sponsored by a funeral home where they can complete the work experience component. There are also seminars and workshops to help workers stay current and learn new aspects of their craft. In the U.K., no formal qualifications are required, but training is available through two-year courses that lead to licensing and accreditation.

Licensing and regulation varies from country to country, but most embalmers need some type of certification, particularly if they are also acting as funeral directors. Many countries also require continuing education credits to maintain certification.

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Further Reading

  • What Does an Embalmer Do?

    An embalmer is someone who treats bodies so that they will resist decay. The vast majority work in the funeral industry, preparing bodies for burial, but they can be employed in other industries as well.

  • A Day's Work For An Embalmer

    Jenn Park-Mustacchio is a licensed funeral director and embalmer who works in New Jersey, USA. She studied anthropology and human biology at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been in the funeral industry for 14 years.

  • There’s Nothing Weird About It: Embalmer Jobs Are For Caring People

    It’s true that death is a taboo subject that no one is in a hurry to discuss with young people, but being an embalmer is just like practicing any other trade.

  • Embalmer

    Embalming itself is the preparation of a body for both viewing during funerary services and for eventual interment. It involves washing the body, replacing the blood with embalming fluid, reshaping the body (sometimes with the use of clay, fabrics, waxes, etc.), applying cosmetics and dressing the body.

  • How Do I Become… An Embalmer

    Around eight to 10 bodies released from hospitals, nursing homes or private residences arrive ready for the embalming to begin. During the week, he teaches as he embalms. Under supervision, students have the opportunity to learn the craft with the deceased.

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