Visiting a deceased loved one in the chapel of rest can understandably be a distressing experience for some people. However it can also be comforting, and it is proven to be an important part of the grieving process.

Even with refrigeration, the human body will begin to deteriorate significantly within a couple of days and so embalming plays an important role in helping families to come to terms with loss by enabling them to see their loved one, in death, without this deterioration causing even more distress. Currently, only embalming using formalin (the liquid version of formaldehyde) is able to achieve this. The funeral director is able to present the deceased person at peace and as close to their appearance before death as possible; particularly where there has been a postmortem examination, or traumatic death – or to accommodate the average two to three week gap between death and the funeral due to delays in the process of obtaining the necessary paperwork required to release the body. Funeral directors would never embalm a case without the express consent of the family and it could take another day or two to obtain that too.  Often embalming is therefore restorative as much as it is preservative.

It is also worth noting that, if the body has been repatriated from another country, embalming to a higher level of concentration used within the UK is often required in the country of origin, prior to the journey and, given the length of time repatriation can take, without an effective alternative to embalming it may be inadvisable for families to see someone returned to the UK following a death overseas.

Studies have shown possible links between formaldehyde and serious illness, but at much higher levels of exposure to the heavily diluted levels of formalin (the liquid version of formaldehyde) used in embalming. It has also been proven that there is an ambient level of formaldehyde present in most British homes and commercial buildings because it naturally occurs in wooden furniture and flooring, is used as a preservative in the manufacture of other products such as carpets and is used as a fungicide and germicide in consumer cleaning products among many others. It is also present in exhaust emissions from cars.

As the main trade association for the profession, the National Association of Funeral Directors requires its 4,100 funeral home members to abide by a Code of Professional Standards which includes a requirement to adhere to all official guidance on the safe use and storage of all chemicals used in the care of bodies, including formalin. These include meeting requirements for upgraded ventilation in mortuaries, the use of appropriate protective clothing and equipment, ensuring all HSE and COSHH health and safety standards are met and a strict adherence to manufacturers’ instructions. In addition, many NAFD funeral directors study for the professional qualifications offered by the British Institute of Embalmers, to ensure they are doing everything possible to be able to provide embalming as a service whilst protecting their employees from any possible harm.

Given all of the factors above, the funeral profession has sought to balance the needs of bereaved families in their care with the responsibilities of working with formalin in order to continue to provide the services sought by families who are saying goodbye to a loved one.

There are a couple of different products on the market which seek to provide a formalin-free alternative, and non-chemical solutions such as body suits exist too, which contain rather than delay decomposition. However, these alternative are not always viable or suitable. Given that families often wish to visit their loved one over the course of two to three weeks – sometimes longer – prior to the funeral, they may work in regards to very short term presentation but simply do not work as a preservative. Only formalin has proven to be effective in this way.

The delay of three years in implementing the ban on use of formalin, part of the EU’s Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, is welcomed by the NAFD to allow funeral firms to continue the search for a feasible alternative.

In the future, if a suitable alternative is not found and the ban comes into force, the window of opportunity for families to visit their loved ones, or decide if they wish for them to be dressed in their own clothes for the funeral, would be reduced significantly because of an inability to delay deterioration effectively. Although it will always be each family’s choice whether to visit their loved one, funeral directors sometimes do have to caution that viewing may not be advisable and this would only increase if there was no effective method of delaying deterioration. This would, in effect, restrict choices which are known to have an important impact upon the grieving process.