National Care Planning Council
National Care Planning Council

Senior Services
from our Members

Books for Care Planning

    Long Term Care BooksFind books provided by the National Care Planning Council written to help the public plan for Long Term Care. Learn More...

Eldercare Articles

    Eldercare ArticlesThe NCPC publishes periodic articles under the title "Planning for Eldercare". Each article is written to help families recognize the need for long term care planning and to help implement that planning. All elderly people, regardless of current health, should have a long term care plan. Learn More...

Join the NCPC

Guide to LTC Planning

    Guide to Long Term Care PlanningFrom its inception, the goal of the National Care Planning Council has been to educate the public on the importance of planning for long term care. With that goal in mind, we have created the largest and most comprehensive source of long term care planning material available anywhere. This material -- "Guide to Long Term Care Planning" -- is free to the public for downloading and printing on all of our web sites. Learn More...

Preparing the Body for Burial

Preparing the Body for Burial


In the early days of our country when a person died, members of the community would come together, wash the body, clothe it and prepare it for burial. Then often members of the community or family would pay their respects by coming to the home of the deceased for a viewing. Finally, a day or two later, there might be a funeral service followed by a burial. There were no fancy caskets, no embalming (except for a period after the Civil War) and no cemetery vaults. The practice of burning a body after death in a furnace or funeral pyre was not generally done. Because of our history, our culture has become accustomed to preserving the body for burial. This is not necessarily true in other cultures. Hindus and Buddhists almost always cremate their loved ones.

In our modern society, the period of time between interment in a mausoleum or burial in the ground could be as much as a week or more, owing to the need to notify members of the family who are living far away, allowing them to travel to where the interment will take place and allowing time to make arrangements to buy burial plots and so forth. Nowadays, funeral homes and undertakers usually have refrigerators to preserve the remains while arrangements are being made. Also, it is common tradition to have a viewing either a day or two before the burial or funeral or just prior to burial or funeral.

Embalming is a common practice in the United States and Canada but is generally not commonly done in the rest of the world. For some, embalming is a way of providing respect by retarding the natural decay of human flesh. For others and for certain religions embalming is considered a desecration of the body. Studies done at the University of Tennessee reveal that all bodies decompose, embalmed or not. It just may take longer for the embalmed body to return to the earth. Embalming fluid may also contain dye to make the skin look more lifelike.

The embalming process also allows for funeral home workers to safely "restore" the body by repairing injuries, filling out the face through padding, forcibly closing the jaw, injecting collagen and using cosmetics to make the deceased appear "natural", as if he or she were slightly younger and in good health. It is also traditional to dress the loved one in formal or favorite attire. Families appreciate seeing their loved ones in a favorable light. It helps them remember the departed one in a pleasing setting. A common phrase used by those filing through a viewing is "He/She looks so good!" On the other hand, lifelike viewings are sometimes disturbing to people as well.

Embalming and restoration are not a necessary process if there is no viewing or for that matter even if there is a viewing. Even though viewings would be safe without embalming, very few funeral homes will consent to viewing without the process. In some states embalming is required. In many states there are no laws requiring embalming except if bodies are transported across state lines, shipped internationally or shipped commercially. It is never required for the first 24 hours in any state; 22 states require embalming after 24, 48, or 72 hours, but refrigeration is usually an alternative option. (Refrigeration is not an option in Alaska , Minnesota or North Dakota.).

Under certain circumstances, medical examiners may require embalming pursuant to an investigation or if death were due to contagion. Due to the use of refrigeration, the remains can be transferred to a coffin for a funeral or graveside service without incurring the additional cost of embalming. For funerals and viewings conducted in the home, dry ice is often used to retard decomposition.

Understanding Cremation

The cost of embalming and restoring as well as the cost of expensive coffins and vaults can be avoided by using cremation. Cremation is typically a much less expensive process and some families prefer it to keeping the body in its natural state. It is also a simpler process as far as making arrangements for viewings and services if such services are not desired.

Since a funeral and interment can often be the third largest expense a family can incur after purchase of a home or a car, many families simply must find a less expensive way to provide final arrangements for loved ones. Some don't have the money for expensive services but still want to provide respect for a decedent and not simply put them in a pine box and place them in the ground. For these reasons and many others cremation is becoming more popular. Estimates are that 20% to 30% of all last arrangements use cremation.

It is interesting to note that legally in more than half of the states; the deceased person has no postmortem rights to what happens with his body. In those states, the family does what it wants, although many times the wishes of the departed are respected if that person made his or her wishes known before death or has created some binding condition in a will that forces the family to comply. If the decedent wanted a traditional burial, the family may choose cremation. If the decedent wanted cremation, the family may choose a traditional burial.

What is often not understood about cremation is that it does not prevent having a funeral or graveside service or even burying the remains in a grave. The body is still there, it is just in another form. In fact, a traditional viewing and funeral service can even be arranged before the cremation takes place. If the family does not want to purchase an expensive casket for a pre-cremation, traditional service, a casket can be rented. Family may also view the cremation process. In most states there must be a waiting period before cremation can occur, for legal purposes since there is no way to identify cause of death after cremation. Also, some states require permission from a medical examiner or corner for the same reason. If it is a suspicious death, obviously cremation will not be allowed.

The process consists of first removing a possible heart pacemaker and external metal objects from the body and then it's common to place it an inexpensive wooden or cardboard coffin. But needing a coffin for cremation is not always required and simply adds to the expense. The body and or coffin are placed in a very hot furnace until everything is reduced to ash. This takes several hours. There may be remnants of metal parts such as artificial joints and there may remain a few pieces of bone. The metal parts are removed and the ashes and bone are processed to a very fine powder. The family has chosen beforehand a suitable receptacle or urn and the ashes are placed in it. The family can choose to have a funeral, a memorial service, or nothing at all. The ashes can be placed in a mausoleum in a cemetery, they can be buried in a cemetery plot, they can be kept in someone's home or they might be scattered in a suitable location.

Services centered around a cremation can be considerably less expensive than traditional funeral services. It is estimated that the average cost of a funeral in the United States is about $8,000. Interment using cremation can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000. The less expensive version would entail only a cremation and a scattering of the ashes in an appropriate location. This would also mean no services and no memorialization and no urn. The more expensive version might entail a funeral service or memorial service, an expensive urn and memorialization in a cemetery.

Cremation is forbidden by Orthodox Judaism, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Islam. The Roman Catholic Church has allowed cremation since 1963 as long as traditional ceremonies respecting the body for purposes of resurrection are maintained. The ashes cannot be scattered or kept in the home but must be buried or entombed. Some Protestants allow cremation, some discourage it and others take no position.