Ask the director


QUESTION: How long does formaldehyde really preserve the body? 

R.P., Macon, Georgia

Dear R.P.,

Formaldehyde is actually a gas. In embalming, a formalin solution is used (chemically HCHO). It’s sort of like making a carbonated soda, but using formaldehyde gas instead of carbon dioxide in the water.

As far as preservation goes, it depends on the percentage of formaldehyde gas in the solution, the rate of flow into the circulatory system, the pressure used, the state of decomposition from the start of the embalming process, the amount of nitrogen in the body (looking at you, jaundice), and if any other preservative measures have been used. Also, grave liners (vaults and cement liners), type of casket (wood or metal, or another material), the water table, and acidity of the earth play a role in preservation and decomposition.

 In Judaism, we are supposed to go back to the earth as soon as possible. We do not embalm, and we use caskets of all-wood construction. If the cemetery requires a grave liner, holes are made in the bottom before the installation of the liner (grave liners are primarily used to keep the land above them flat to avoid uneven ground and sinkholes in the future), and the burial takes place shortly after death occurs.

The why: People (and the proteins that comprise them) are mostly four elements – Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen (CHON). The HCHO reacts with the Nitrogen and makes protein chains. The wee beasties that make decomposition possible no longer see these proteins  as food. Think of a bagel, but toasting it to a blackened crisp. It no longer retains the nutrients or appearance of anything edible.

Depending on several factors, preservation from embalming can last not very long to nearly forever. Also, don’t burn your bagels.

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