[Histonet] Re: Formaldehyde ban in Europe

rsrichmond <@t> aol.com rsrichmond <@t> aol.com
Sun Aug 19 14:26:24 CDT 2007

Embalming of human bodies has been widely practiced in the USA ever since the Civil War (1861-1865), but has come into widespread use in Europe much more recently. Almost all bodies in the USA are embalmed before burial in a sealed coffin which in turn is put in a concrete vault. (I shudder to think what will become of these in the next, say, million years.) Bodies are also routinely embalmed before cremation.

Embalming was originally done with potassium arsenite, said to be the best of all embalming fluids, which was banned many years ago not for environmental reasons, but because it interfered with postmortem toxicologic investigation in suspected poisoning.

Most present-day embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, sometimes with ethanol and phenol, and a red dye that makes the body look more lifelike. Several gallons of embalming fluid are pumped through the arterial system through multiple arteriotomies in the carotid, axillary, and femoral arteries. Arterial embalming can be done before or after autopsy. Done before autopsy, it gives the viscera and muscles an odd red color, but doesn't change texture a great deal. It's really quite a convenient way to do an autopsy - I've done many that way - but it of course precludes bacterial cultures. The longer the body will lie around before being buried, the higher the concentration of formaldehyde used - the trade-off is that a more heavily embalmed body is less pliable, so that the embalmer cannot so easily make the face look lifelike.

Embalmed bodies are then displayed in funeral homes and in participating churches (not in MY church, thank you - I'm an Episcopalian), laid out in expensive caskets (never say coffins).

Formaldehyde-free embalming fluids are used with jaundiced bodies, which if embalmed with formaldehyde turn a bright green color (from biliverdin) singularly resistant to covering up with make-up.

Halacha (Jewish law) prohibits embalming as well as public display of dead bodies, and I think Islamic law does also. I don't know of any Christian denomination that prohibits it.

No Histonetters on Mars are going to believe any of this.

Bob Richmond
Samurai Pathologist
Knoxville TN

AOL now offers free email to everyone.  Find out more about what's free from AOL at AOL.com.

More information about the Histonet mailing list