How Do Funeral Homes Dress Bodies? Behind Closed Doors

Most people are buried in the finest available formal clothing in Western nations. The task of dressing the deceased for their funeral falls to the staff of a funeral home. Still, how do funeral homes dress dead bodies?

Here’s how funeral homes dress bodies:

  1. Donated organs are harvested.
  2. The body is sent to the morgue.
  3. An embalmer embalms the body. 
  4. A funeral director cleans the body.
  5. The funeral home acquires the burial outfit. 
  6. The funeral workers modify the burial outfit.
  7. The body is dressed.
  8. Mortuary cosmetologists do the deceased’s makeup and hair. 
  9. The body is moved to the casket for presentation. 

This article will explain the step-by-step process used by funeral homes to dress the bodies of the deceased for their funeral and burial. Later we’ll discuss other ways funeral home workers can prepare bodies for their final send-off.

1. Donated Organs Are Harvested

Our story begins when brain death is declared. 

Far from being spiritual or immortal beings, the essence of a human being is located in a few pounds of fatty tissue inside the skull, the human brain. When the brain dies, the person is gone forever.

However, their death doesn’t have to be meaningless. Suppose the deceased is a registered organ donor and was relatively healthy at the time of death. In that case, their organs could save or improve the lives of dozens of other people.

When a registered organ donor is declared “brain dead,” and the death is recorded, their body is placed on life support to keep the heart pumping and other donatable organs and tissues alive. 

Organ recovery specialists are then summoned to the hospital, or doctors on the hospital staff can perform the organ collection.

Below is the list of donatable organs and tissues:

  • Blood vessels
  • Bone or bone marrow
  • Corneas (transparent outer layer of the eye)
  • Heart or heart valves
  • Intestines
  • Kidneys
  • Liver
  • Lungs
  • Middle ear
  • Pancreas
  • Skin
  • Tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues

Organ collection specialists try to collect the donor’s organs as quickly as possible while keeping the organs intact. When the specialists finish collecting the healthy organs from the deceased, quite a lot of the donor’s body might be missing on the inside. 

However, organ donation rarely impacts the appearance of the dead at the funeral. That’s where the artful skill of the funeral home comes in. 

2. The Body Is Sent to the Morgue

Whether or not the deceased is an organ donor, shortly after they’re declared “legally dead,” the hospital or paramedics will turn the body over to a morgue. 

Depending on the circumstances of a person’s death, the wishes of the family, and the availability of staff, the body could remain in the morgue for some time.

A medical examiner will examine a person who dies under suspicious or criminal circumstances. At the very least, the medical examiner will inspect the outside of the body for injuries and take blood and tissue samples to check for poisons, disease, or other causes of death.

A comparably small percentage of deceased Americans undergo an autopsy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1970, about 60% of people who died in hospitals were autopsied. By 2007, that number had dropped drastically to about 5%.

When a person dies at home, their body will often skip the morgue altogether and be sent straight to the funeral home of the family’s choosing.

3. An Embalmer Embalms the Body

Whether or not a person is an organ donor or their body pays a visit to the local medical examiner, their body will soon find its way to a funeral home.

According to Statista, an online corporate data broker, as of 2019, there were 19,136 funeral homes active in the United States of America. That number was on a downward trend before the COVID-19 pandemic started.

A small percentage of America’s nearly 20,000 funeral homes cater to immigrant or religious communities with divergent customs handling the dead. An even smaller percentage cater to people who want the bodies of their loved ones disposed of as environmentally responsible as possible. 

The remainder of this article pertains to what’s done with most deceased Americans.

For most Americans, about 50%, their body will be embalmed by the funeral home. Embalming is the process of preserving a corpse so it doesn’t decompose too much before a funeral. Humans have been embalming bodies for thousands of years.

The first step of the modern embalming process is washing the body with a disinfectant solution. This cleaning will protect the funeral home staff from pathogens on the corpse’s skin.

Once the corpse is clean, its blood is drained and replaced with embalming fluid. The person who performs this process is called the embalmer. 

Modern funeral homes pump embalming fluid in through a major artery while extracting blood through the jugular vein. While the blood and embalming fluid exchange, a mortician will massage the body to ease rigor mortis and evenly distribute embalming fluid. The removed blood is usually just flushed into the local wastewater system.

Modern embalming fluid is a complex mix of fluids, including but not limited to formaldehyde, water conditioners, anti-clotting compounds, dyes, and disinfectants. Many of the chemicals included are potentially carcinogenic, which has led to concerns about groundwater safety in the areas around funeral homes and cemeteries. 

If the person was an organ or tissue donor, part of the embalming process is filling in any gaps left by the harvested organs to restore the body to a lifelike shape. 

Funeral directors can replace abdominal organs like the liver and intestines with air bladders, sandbags, or even wads of newspaper. Carbon fiber or PVC tubes can replace donated bones.

During the embalming process, the largest organs in the abdomen are punctured with a medical instrument called a trocar, basically a three-sided hollow pick. This process prevents decomposition gasses from building up in the gut and improves fluid drainage.

Lastly, the corpse’s facial features will be set in a dignified, restful expression. Eyes are closed with glue, and the jaw is sewed shut.

The modern embalming process is remarkably effective. Rather than rotting, an embalmed body will gradually desiccate (dry out) and will be recognizable for decades or centuries after burial. 

If a body is buried in an airtight metal casket, there’s a good chance that it’ll turn into a “soap mummy.” This process occurs when fat decomposes in an oxygen-poor environment. In this decomposition process, anaerobic bacteria can convert it into a wax-like substance called “adipocere,” leaving the body in a mummified state.  

4. A Funeral Director Cleans the Body

After embalming, the funeral director will thoroughly clean the body to remove any blood and embalming fluid that may have stained it. This process includes more massaging to distribute the embalming fluids and wiping off the skin for the most part. 

After cleaning, the deceased is thoroughly dried, which will make the body last much longer in the morgue. 

5. The Funeral Home Acquires the Burial Outfit

In most cases, an American will be buried in formal attire from their wardrobe. In most cases, the deceased’s loved ones or family will choose the outfit, and they should turn the clothing over to the funeral home at least a day before the funeral. 

One problem that occurs often is families not supplying complete outfits. A burial outfit must include underwear, socks/stockings, pants/skirt, undershirt/bra, shirt, shoes, jacket, and any jewelry and other accessories.

Most natural or synthetic fabric clothing is suitable for cremation and burial. Still, undertakers must remove clothing made of treated leather, rubber-soled shoes, glasses, and jewelry from a body before cremation.

It’s not strictly required that a person be buried in formal dress. Some families choose to burial their loved ones in “street clothes” or their favorite outfits. Some ecologically responsible burial practices call for no clothing at all.

Most funeral homes typically offer specially made rental clothing for the deceased if the family can’t provide adequate clothing. The service doesn’t come cheap, usually around $800 for the funeral day. Also, the funerary staff will remove the rented clothing before burial.

From time to time, families have rented suits, tuxedos, or other formal clothing for their loved ones to wear during their funerals from other retailers. For the reasons outlined below, these families ended up losing their deposits.

6. The Funeral Workers Modify the Burial Outfit

Anyone who has ever tried to dress a toddler or a drunk/passed-out friend knows that it’s not easy to dress someone that’s not cooperative. 

It’s so tricky to dress a dead body that police and medical examiners have learned to recognize the signs of postmortem dressing, often indicating assault. So how do funeral homes get it right?

Funeral homes cut clothes open at the back to make postmortem dressing easier and make the clothes sit right. Then, the garments are placed on the deceased and sewn back up.

At open casket funerals, the body is always laid down on its back. So, the seams left by the funeral home staff are hidden from view.

7. The Body is Dressed

Depending on the funeral home, the task of dressing the deceased may be performed by the funeral director, mortician, or embalmer. Undergarments protect outer layers of clothing and provide additional modesty for the dead. 

Undergarments with elastic bands typically aren’t cut to make dressing easier. Putting them on the deceased may require a bit of maneuvering.

Once undergarments are in place, the cut-open clothing is placed on the body and sewn back up. This way, dressing the body makes the final result look more natural and allows the clothes to fit the deceased well.

Footwear isn’t required for most open casket funerals and burials. 

Many modern caskets have split lids that form two hinged doors, called “half-couch caskets.” The family can open the smaller front door to show the deceased from the waist up.

The deceased is buried in a half-couch casket, their feet won’t be visible, and they might as well be barefoot. If the family does provide footwear, it doesn’t need to be dress shoes. Alternatives like slippers, socks, crocs, or old sneakers are perfectly acceptable.

The deceased are typically dressed on the day before or on the day of their funeral. 

8. Mortuary Cosmetologists Do the Deceased’s Makeup and Hair

Once the deceased is in the last outfit they’ll ever wear, it’s time to make them look presentable. It may come as a surprise that most people don’t leave behind a naturally good-looking corpse. Even after embalming, most deceased have pale complexions and sunken eyes.

In the past, most funeral homes and mortuaries had staffers on call to do the hair and makeup of both male and female corpses. These days, many outsource the makeup and hair duties to local specialist makeup artists called “mortuary cosmetologists.” 

Mortuary cosmetologists are state-regulated college-educated professionals. In general, they’re required to undergo 1000-1500 hours of training in addition to an associate’s degree in cosmetology. Many colleges and trade schools with cosmetology programs offer specialized courses for those who wish to specialize in mortuary cosmetology.

In most cases, the family will be asked to supply recent pictures of the deceased to reference the mortician or cosmetologist. 

The goal of the makeup application is to make the deceased look as lifelike and healthy as possible. Often, in cases where the deceased suffered from a long illness, they will look the best they have in years.

Due to minor chemical differences between living and embalmed skin, many brands of over-the-counter cosmetics don’t work correctly on cadavers. There are specialized brands of postmortem makeup to fill this niche.

In addition, the funeral staff will consult the family on the proper hairstyle for the deceased. 

9. The Body Is Moved to the Casket for Presentation

Once the deceased is dressed and have had their hair and makeup done, it’s time to place them in their casket. Funeral homes use special body lifts to move the deceased into their casket or coffin while not disturbing their clothing.

The traditional pose for an open casket funeral is as follows:

  • Head: Tilted slightly forward, as if they’re looking down at their feet. The head may also be tilted slightly to the right so people walking past the casket can see the deceased’s whole face if the funeral is open-casket.
  • Hands: Resting on the abdomen, with the hand wearing a wedding ring (if applicable) on top of the other. Fingers should be comfortably touching.
  • Legs: Comfortably together, as if standing at attention.

And with that, the deceased is prepared for their funeral.

Funeral home interior with a classical wooden coffin.
Photo 21881657 © Stanko07 |

Final Thoughts

Preparing the deceased for their funeral is a careful and somber affair, and it’s a true science in the modern world. By following the preceding nine steps, funeral homes prepare the deceased for their funeral with the utmost respect.


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Alex Noel

Hi there! I'm Alex Noel and live in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started this website to share my experience. My goal is to provide Americans a more fulfilling goodbye.

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