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To embalm or not to embalm – a personal choice

Posted at 11:37am Tuesday 14 Jul, 2020

While the majority of New Zealanders still have deceased loved ones embalmed, there are alternatives.

Embalming uses chemical preservatives, and there are various options from partial to full embalming.
The NZ Embalmers Association says funeral homes keep records but there are no national statistics for rates of embalming.

Spokesperson and former president, Wade Downey, says an educated guess is that around 80 to 90 percent of Kiwis are embalmed.

State of Grace in Albany is one organisation that does not routinely embalm. Its co-owner, Deb Cairns, says many people come to State of Grace for that very reason.

“We embalm at a rate of about five percent,” Deb says.

She says while in some cases embalming is necessary, when there is a choice, the reasons that people reject embalming include that it is an intrusive process. The potential impact of the chemicals on the environment is also a concern.

“We use cooling methods to keep a body in a dignified state until the day of the funeral,” Deb says. “We have a walk in cool-room as the first option and for people who stay at home, we have discreet ice packs placed around the body.”

She says State of Grace is not anti-embalming, but just prefers more natural methods.

“When we do need to embalm, we are grateful to have that option. We follow the wishes of families – the choice is theirs.”

Hibiscus Funeral Services owner, funeral director Mark Mortlock, says around half the company's clients choose to have loved ones embalmed.

“Another 20 percent opt for non-invasive treatments and the remainder go ‘au naturale',” he says.
Natural treatments include washing with biodegradable products.

“Some cultures use the likes of eucalyptus oil and spices to slow the effects of decomposition,” Mark says.

He says more families are exploring alternative treatments and increasingly approach a funeral having done their research, with a good idea of what they want.

He says reasons for not choosing embalming include that full embalming can contravene certain religious and cultural practices.

“Our approach to embalming is on an ‘as needed' basis. We do not insist on it and are happy to work with families to find alternative treatments. There are often good options available that better fit with their values and priorities. We are aware that every decision we make affects our environment so we evaluate our treatments to ensure there is a well-considered outcome.”

He says that an important thing to be aware of when using alternatives, however, is that they will usually only give an extra few days before degradation is noticeable.

Brenton Faithfull, director of Faithfull Funerals in Red Beach says this is why embalming is beneficial for a positive viewing experience when there is a delay between someone's death and their farewell. 

“Embalming today is not like it was for the ancient Egyptians, where the desired outcome was preservation for thousands of years,” he says. “Modern embalming is to sanitise and preserve the deceased, and it can restore the natural appearance.”

He says only qualified personnel should carry out the process.

“Auckland has a shortage of qualified embalmers. Sadly, anyone can call themselves an embalmer – or a funeral director for that matter. Unlike other health professionals, you are not required to be qualified, and many operators have had no formal training.”

The NZ Embalmers Association notes that another variation that people are choosing at the moment is not to have a funeral service at all, just transfer the body for cremation and collect the ashes later.

Embalmers spokesperson Wade Downey says this is obviously not something that funeral directors wish to promote – not only because of the potential impact on their businesses but also because it provides no celebration of a person's life, or a place to grieve together.

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