Science in Fiction: Current Embalming Practices

science in fiction Kasie Whitener asked: Hi, Danielle. Not sure if this counts as “science” but I’d like to learn more about current embalming practices — like what chemicals and smells would be present in a morgue.

Well, a morgue and embalming are two entirely different topics. Morgues don’t use embalming. They’ll smell like death and strong disinfectants mainly. Morgues are used to house the dead until they are taken by the mortuaries.  There are generally found in hospitals or separate buildings associated with the police. is a video on embalming I thought was interesting. An embalming room would likely smell like formaldehyde. I don’t think there are any disinfectants strong enough to mask that smell entirely. I do have experience with formaldehyde, but I don’t have the best nose. I do know strong ventilation is required when using formaldehyde as it makes it difficult to breathe. It smells strong to me. If you’ve ever done dissections, the animals were probably preserved with formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde can cause reddening of the eyes followed by tear production. One site worded it as it makes your eyes sting.
1 – Remove clothing/accessories. Massage muscles, move joints to alleviate rigor mortis, if necessary. Men are shaved.
2 – Position the body.
3 – Arterial embalming. Takes about 2 gallons.  See video above for more details.
  • Hypodermic embalming is used as needed. You use a hypodermic needle to reach areas the arterial embalming missed.
  • Surface embalming – directly on skin.

4 – Cavity embalming. Use a trocar to aspirate (suck) the liquids out of the internal organs to prevent bloating. A stronger mix of formaldehyde is used in the cavities. If an autopsy has been done, the organs are removed and soaked in embalming fluid. They are either replaced or the bag of organs is placed at the foot of the casket.
5 – Appearance. Makeup and washing the body. Moisturizer is used as well.

Typical embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, ethanol, humectants, and wetting agents and other solvents. The formaldehyde content generally ranges from 5 to 35 percent and the ethanol content may range from 9 to 56 percent.

For questions or clarification, feel free to ask in the comments below or contact me directly.
If you have other science questions you’d like answered, feel free to contact me as well.

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