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Body Preparation

Body Preparation

You can choose to be involved in the preparation of the body of your loved one after death, or you can leave this to professionals. If there was nothing expressed in your loved ones final wishes, this is completely your choice. The preparation of your loved one’s body can be carried out in different ways and sometimes can depend on what is planned for your loved one’s farewell.

Caring for the body yourself

Caring for the body of a loved one at home can help with the grieving process. As it might be the last physical contact you have with the person who has passed, it’s also a way to continue to care for your loved one after they have died.

It is important to seek professional support and guidance during this time and to make sure you are treating your loved one with the dignity and respect they deserve. Rigor mortis (the stiffening of the joints and muscles) sets in within the first few hours after death so it is important to position the body on their back, ideally with their head and chest slightly elevated and their arms by their sides. You can the work with the support of experienced professionals to clean and dress your loved one.

You can expect to see changes in the body over time, such as increased paleness, facial changes and stiffness of muscles and joints. This can depend on the condition of the body before death, the cause of death, the temperature of the body and the environment.

Bathing and dressing the body

  • Gently wash the face with a soft damp cloth. You can also gently help the eyes to close by holding the eyelids down for a few minutes following death. If they don’t stay closed on their own, you can try placing a small soft fabric bag over the eyes and keep it in place until the lids remain closed. It works best if the bags is filled with a substance like uncooked rice, similar to a small eye mask. Be aware that the skin becomes very tender after death, so it is critical to be very gentle, and to not use cloths or eye bags for too long or you may permanently damage, discolour or bruise the skin.
  • Gently clean the teeth and mouth with a damp cloth, without forcing the mouth open or using any significant pressure. Dentures should be left where they are as replacing them can be difficult as the body stiffens. If the mouth is still open, you can help to keep it closed by placing a soft rolled-up towel underneath the chin until body stiffness helps it remains closed. If this is proving unsuccessful, you could try a necktie or scarf that can be wrapped around the head and gently tied.
  • If needed, you can gently wash your loved one’s hair with a damp cloth (shampoo, conditioner is not recommended) and for a man, you may also like to shave his face, if that was part of his normal routine
  • Clean the body using a washcloth with water and soap and if you prefer, small amounts of essential oils. It is also important to ensure the genital and rectal areas are clean and incontinence nappies and pads are also important, as bodies continue to excrete after death.
  • Dress the body as your loved one would have wished. Button up shirts can be a good idea as it is easier to get arms through the sleeves, especially once the body starts to stiffen. If dressing is proving too difficult because of rigor mortis, it can help to cut garments up the back and then tuck the sides under the body (protecting the body is much more important than protecting the clothing).
  • You might like to paint fingernails or toes, apply makeup or style their hair if this is what they would have liked. You can also adorn their body with jewellery and mementos.

Embalming

You can choose to have your loved one’s body embalmed for longer preservation or if you are worried about your loved one’s body deteriorating due to warm weather or other conditions. Embalming can be useful if the final farewell has been delayed for more than a few days or if the body needs to be transported over a long distance. However, if bodies are well cared for, using icepacks, refrigeration and other strategies, bodies can be cared for without embalming for up to a week.

Embalming is commonplace for open-casket funerals but is not necessary.  Embalming is not required by law in New Zealand but is recommended by the New Zealand Embalmers Association. It is only required when a body is repatriated to another country and is a requirement of the airline.

Embalming isn’t permitted at natural cemeteries because it uses hazardous substances, such as formaldehyde and paraformaldehyde, to preserve the body.

How does embalming work?

To embalm the body, licensed technicians inject preservative chemicals into the circulatory system. Using a special machine, the blood is removed and replaced with the embalming fluid. If the body is emaciated or dehydrated, a solution can be injected via a hypodermic needle to plump facial features. If trauma or disease has altered the appearance of the deceased, the embalmer can use wax, adhesive and plaster to recreate a natural form. No organs are removed during the embalming process.

Embalming is not permanent as it only delays the natural process of death. Typically, it will preserve the body for around a week, but factors such as condition of the body and temperature conditions may affect this. On average, embalming costs between $500 and $800.

How does an embalmed body look and feel?

Embalmers do their best to make the body look as natural as possible but bodies will still look different than the person when they were alive as the body no longer has blood circulating in the tissues. Embalming is usually organised and managed by funeral homes, who also have staff to dress your loved one in the clothing you provide, and also apply makeup and style the hair of your loved one.

In some funeral homes, family members may, if they wish, assist with dressing the deceased person, they may style the hair or assist with applying makeup. Family members may also participate in the placement of the deceased within their casket. Embalmed bodies tend to feel firmer than non-embalmed bodies and all deceased bodies feel cool to touch. The higher the chemical index of the embalmed fluid, the less life-like the body may feel.

Seeking support and services from a funeral home

If you have decided to use the services of a funeral home, you can call them to collect the body, once your loved one has been confirmed as deceased by a medical professional. Once a funeral home has picked up the body, they will talk to you about options such as whether or not you would like the body embalmed.

The body will be placed in refrigeration to keep it cool until the day of burial, at which point the body will be transported to the funeral service and then the burial site.

Most funeral facilities include private viewing rooms where friends and family can visit and view the body during set hours. Find funeral homes near you.

If you would like to care for your loved one's body yourselves as a family or whanāu, it is important to have professional experience and guidance to support you and ensure you are treating your loved one with dignity and respect.