Frequently Asked Questions 


Is Embalming Compulsory?

Embalming is not compulsory in New Zealand except in the case of a body being repatriated to another country. In that case it is a requirement made by airlines. Although embalming is not compulsory it is a highly recommended procedure in all cases to allow families to view and interact with the deceased prior to the funeral.


Is Refrigeration an option?

Refrigeration is an option in some, limited circumstances. Refrigeration may slow decomposition initially but also creates dehydration and discolouration changes making viewing the deceased a less pleasant experience. Refrigeration does not minimise the risk of infection for those coming into contact with the deceased.


How long does Embalming take?

Typically, the embalming process may take between three and six hours. The time required is affected by many factors including the cause of death, condition of the deceased, the presence of infectious disease or the requirements of the family. In some cases, the process may extend over several days, especially where repatriation, or reconstruction techniques are required.


What happens after a post-mortem examination (Autopsy)?

In cases of sudden or unexplained death, a post-mortem examination may be requested by the Coroner and carried out by a pathologist. (A doctor especially trained to determine the cause of death). The organs of the deceased are examined, and tissue samples may be taken for more detailed study. All body parts are returned to the family unless specific permission is given for them to be retained. When the Coroner is satisfied with the findings the deceased person is released to the funeral director chosen by the family. During the embalming process, the pathologist’s temporary incision closures are re-opened so that each area of the body may be carefully treated. Vital organs are treated separately, and the incisions securely closed. Any reconstruction work is completed, the body is cleansed prior to dressing. At this point there should be few visible signs of the post-mortem examination and any injuries or marks associated with the cause of death may be covered or cosmetised to reduce their visual impact.


Can family members participate in preparing the deceased?

Yes. 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. Those participating in this activity may be required to wear suitable protective clothing including gloves and masks on occasion.

Only suitably qualified and supervised personnel can participate in the actual embalming process. There are health and safety restrictions in place in New Zealand mortuaries to ensure the protection of physical and mental health of all parties.


Can embalming cause pollution of burial grounds or the atmosphere?

Aldehydes, which are a principal ingredient in many embalming fluids, consist of molecules of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in combination. These are elements common to many substances and are not in themselves a cause for concern. In embalming usage these elements recombine with proteins in the body and become neutralised when in contact with other elements. Aldehydes are also neutralised in contact with the soil and during cremation breakdown to carbon dioxide and water. Cremation emissions are regulated by environmental law to ensure clean emissions from this source. Studies of ground water in cemeteries indicate that there is no cause for concern. You can read further on this topic by following this link. (PDF) Potential groundwater pollutants from cemeteries (researchgate.net) or reading the WHO ‘Nancy project report’ for additional information.


Are there environmentally friendly embalming options?

Yes. Many embalming services will offer options that are environmentally friendly. These range from a simple exterior surface cleansing through to the use of non-aldehyde-based chemicals which are injected arterially. Effectiveness of non-aldhyde-based chemicals will range from highly effective to barely effective. People considering these options should discuss their effectiveness with their embalming service provider to ensure they are suitable for their needs.


Where can I find out more?

Contact the New Zealand Embalmer’s Association (Inc) via email at info@nzembalmers.org.nz or your local funeral home that employs qualified staff.