Is Embalming Required by Law? Full Answer & Alternatives


Funeral embalming has been performed throughout history for the staging of important individuals after their death for exhibition, preserving bodies for research or hygienic control, and establishing a “clear identity” of a corpse before a funeral. However, even though it is a physically invasive process that some may be uncomfortable with for several reasons, it may be required in some situations.  

Embalming is required by law in some states and circumstances, including if the body is being transported or carried a disease before death. Some states also have waiting periods, after which the body must be embalmed or otherwise preserved. 

In the rest of this article, I’ll answer all your questions about embalming including which states embalming is required, the embalming process and much more.

Is Embalming Mandatory? 

Embalming is not mandatory in most circumstances, and the decision is up to the departed and their loved ones whether or not they should be embalmed. However, there are exceptions in some states and circumstances.  

Different states have different laws about embalming. Generally, most states do not require it, but there are exceptions. For example, in Alabama and Alaska, if a body is to cross the state line, it must be embalmed first. 

In other states, including California, Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, and New Jersey, embalming is mandatory if the body crosses state lines by a common carrier, such as an airplane. 

Furthermore, some states have a waiting period; after this period, the body must be embalmed or otherwise preserved. 

Other states, such as Illinois, require that a body is embalmed if it had certain contagious diseases when the person died. In these cases, a doctor is usually consulted to determine if embalming is necessary. 

Finally, some states, such as Georgia and Indiana, have no embalming requirements whatsoever. 

The following table outlines different state requirements regarding embalming: 

Requirement States 
24 Hour Waiting Period AlaskaArizona Colorado DelawareFlorida KansasMissouri New Mexico Oregon Pennsylvania South Dakota TexasWashington 
30 Hour Waiting Period Louisiana 
36 Hour Waiting Period Wyoming 
48 Hour Waiting Period Arkansas (when the body is to be cremated) Iowa Michigan Mississippi Montana New Jersey North Dakota Rhode Island 
72 Hour Waiting Period Minnesota Nevada 
Embalming Required for Crossing State Lines Alabama AlaskaArizona Mississippi 
Embalming Required for Transport on a Common Carrier Arkansas California Colorado Idaho Iowa KansasMinnesota Mississippi New Jersey Wyoming 
Embalming Required for Certain Diseases Alaska Arizona Colorado Connecticut Delaware Illinois Iowa Kansas Michigan Minnesota Mississippi Missouri Montana Nevada North Dakota Vermont Wisconsin 

In most cases, if the departed are buried quickly or choose to be cremated, embalming is not required by law if the body doesn’t cross state lines and the departed did not have a contagious disease when they died. 

Certain funeral homes have their own rules regarding embalming. Some do not allow public viewing of a body unless it has been embalmed. Also, some people in the funeral industry may promote embalming because it allows them to increase how much is being spent at their homes. 

Embalming itself has an additional cost, and funeral homes can charge more for body preparation and a casket with protective features. If you ever feel like a funeral home is pressuring you to embalm a loved one, or they are making you feel guilty for not wanting to do so, you should pick a different funeral home.  

Bouquet with white funeral flowers as lily

Advantages and Disadvantages of Embalming 

There are many reasons why you may be hesitant to be embalmed. To help you make this decision, let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of embalming: 

Advantages: 

  • Embalming delays the decomposition of a body, so the corpse will still have a clear identity for longer. If family members and loved ones wish to view the body, they probably want it to look like the departed. Unfortunately, bodies decay quickly after death, so without embalming, a body may be unsettling to look at after only a few days. 
  • Some people may consider viewing the departed’s body as an essential part of the grieving process. An open-casket funeral can be healing for those the departed left behind, and the experience will be far more comforting if the body is in good condition. It is important to note that a body can still be viewed without embalming in most states; it just might not look as presentable.  
  • Embalming sanitizes the body. Dead bodies are usually not dangerous, but there are some risks of disease spreading from a body to an individual. For this reason, some states require embalming if a person had a specific disease when they died. When embalmed, a body is sanitized and therefore safer to be around. Furthermore, embalming delays decomposition and the release of substances such as cadaverine. 

Disadvantages: 

  • Embalming is forbidden in some religions unless required by law. Embalming is prohibited by the Muslim, Bahá’Í, and Jewish faiths. Therefore, people practicing these faiths will contradict their beliefs if they choose to get embalmed. Embalming is not prohibited in Christianity.
  • Embalming uses harsh chemicals that can be damaging to the environment. If a body is being buried, the chemicals used for embalming, including formaldehyde, methanol, and glycerin, will eventually end up in the ground as the body decomposes. This can harm the surrounding ecosystem, especially if the chemicals leak into groundwater. 
  • The cost of embalming may be outside of your budget. Funeral costs can add up quickly, and embalming is not an inexpensive process. On average, embalming costs $500-$700. Opting out of embalming may allow loved ones to spend that money elsewhere, such as on a personalized funeral reception for the departed. 

Ultimately, whether or not to embalm a body is up to the departed and their loved ones. There is no environmentally perfect way to dispose of a body, so people should choose whichever option is most comforting for them and those left behind.

Embalming Process 

Embalming uses chemicals to preserve human bodies and delay decomposition. The process involves sanitization, a surgical portion, and cosmetic preparation. Embalming has been prevalent in the United States since the Civil War, but despite its popularity, many people are unaware of what the embalming process looks like. 

Here are the basic steps of embalming: 

  1. Place the body in a supine position with the head elevated. This is to prevent discoloration and bloating of the facial features.  
  2. Verify death by checking for a pulse, clouded eyes, and rigor mortis. 
  3. Remove all clothes and jewelry. 
  4. Remove any IVs or catheters. 
  5. Sanitize the body with an antimicrobial detergent. 
  6. Shave the hair off the face of the body. Most embalmers also shave the face of women to remove peach fuzz. 
  7. Massage the body to break the rigor mortis. Massaging loosens up stiff joints and allows the embalming fluid to go where it needs to within the body. 
  8. Seal the eyes shut using an eye cap. In some cases, a piece of cotton is placed underneath the eyelid to prevent the eyelid from sagging into the socket.  
  9. Seal the mouth shut with wiring or adhesive. Embalmers must be mindful to keep the jawline looking as natural as possible. 
  10. Inject embalming fluid in the body. This can be done by injecting fluid into the carotid artery, making an incision in the abdomen, or applying the fluid to the skin. 
  11. Wash the body with disinfectant to remove all blood and chemicals. 
  12. Apply moisturizer and cosmetics to disguise skin discoloration. Moisturizer prevents the eyelids and lips from drying out, making them look lifelike. 
  13. Style the hair using oils and gels that help disguise odor. 
  14. Dress the body in clothing selected by the departed or their loved ones. 

Embalming does not preserve the body forever; this is impossible. However, it is effective for delaying decay for enough time to organize a funeral service and a public viewing if that’s what the departed’s loved ones would like. 

The decomposition rate after embalming depends on the chemical strength, the method of embalming used, and how the body is stored. The body will decay rapidly in a warm climate, even after embalming. An embalmed body shouldn’t be left out for more than a week.  

Medical embalming uses stronger chemicals so the body will last longer for research purposes. These bodies can be kept for six months or more. 

Some may view the above process as too invasive or unnatural for their liking and therefore wish to pursue other options. 

Is Embalming Required for Cremation? 

In most cases, embalming is not required for cremation. However, if there is to be a public viewing of the body before the cremation, some funeral homes may require embalming. 

Embalming is never legally required for direct cremation without public viewing. However, if the loved ones of the departed wish to display the body for people to say their goodbyes before the cremation, some funeral homes require that they have the body embalmed first. 

There are many advantages to getting a body cremated without embalming. Let’s take a look at a few: 

  • Cremation without embalming is less invasive than other body disposal options. Embalming is an invasive procedure, but direct cremation requires no surgery or interference with the body. 
  • This option is more affordable. Cremation is less expensive than a burial, especially a burial with embalming. Funeral services with embalming cost an average of $6,000, whereas a direct cremation costs less than $2,000. This may be more suitable for some people’s budgets. 
  • Cremation is better for the environment. Cremation isn’t a perfect method of body disposal and can still have a negative impact on the environment, but overall, it is greener than embalming. 
  • You don’t need to buy a casket. A standard burial usually requires the purchase of an expensive casket, but cremation only requires a container to hold the body during the process. This can be a casket, or it could be several other, cheaper options. 

Cremation is increasing in popularity in the United States, and one reason may be that embalming is not required for this method. 

Embalming Alternatives 

You do not have to be embalmed after your death if you don’t want to. There are many alternatives for how to deal with a body after death. In fact, embalming is only common in the United States and Canada, so people worldwide send off their loved ones in various ways. Let’s take a look at these alternatives: 

  • Immediate burial. Direct burial, without embalming, is offered by all funeral homes. No states require embalming for immediate burial. The body is buried within a few days of death in an immediate burial, usually without service because it is so last-minute.
  • Closed-casket funeral. If an immediate burial is impossible, you can opt for a closed-casket funeral. Loved ones won’t be able to see the body again, but they will still be able to gather and celebrate the departed in the presence of their body. 
  • Direct cremation. In most cases, embalming is not required if a body is to be cremated. Some funeral homes still require it if there is to be a public viewing before the cremation. Remember that cremation is forbidden in some faiths and might not be the best choice for everyone.   
  • Refrigeration. Funeral homes have refrigeration facilities that they can keep bodies in. The cold temperature slows the decay rate without using the toxic chemicals and without the invasion that embalming entails. However this is not a long term solution and will only preserve the body for a short period while you plan a long-term alternative.

It can be comforting to know that embalming isn’t your only choice for what to do with your body after you die. There are many other options, and you can pick which one feels most comforting and true to you. 

Conclusion 

There are many reasons why a person might not want to be embalmed upon their death. Embalming is not required by law in all cases in any state within the United States. However, some states have embalming requirements for certain conditions. If you do not want to be embalmed, there are alternatives you can choose that are completely legal, including immediate burial, direct cremation, or a closed-casket funeral.

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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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