In Search of the Perfect Embalming Chemical

Written by Curtis D. Rostad, CAE, CFSP
Aardbalm from the United Kingdom was the first. A new kind of embalming fluid – iodine-based and claiming to be both non-toxic and earth-friendly. The skeptics lined up immediately. It doesn’t produce firmness, so does it really embalm a body or just delay decomposition for awhile? The Dodge Company responded with Freedom Art. The exact formulation is a closely guarded secret, but the alcohol-based fluid is said to “preserve, disinfect and deodorize,” while clearly advising the user that they will not achieve the firmness they are used to. The Champion Company created Enigma which also claims to be non-toxic. Its active ingredient is propylene glycol. They say that it retards and slows decomposition sufficient for effective holding of the body for 3-5 days and in some cases a week or more. They do not claim their product is designed for long-term embalming but rather for “acceptable temporary preservation.” All the embalming chemical companies have done their homework and are researching and producing a new generation of embalming products for a “green” 21st century. So while these new formulations all claim to have some disinfectant and preservative properties, none of them claim to be as effective in either role as traditional embalming fluid. And they all have one big drawback when compared to traditional embalming products: none of them fix tissue or produce tissue firmness. This lack of firmness can mean viewable remains with sagging lips and cheeks, as well as difficulties doing restoration work on soft pliable tissues.

It appears that of the three objectives of embalming: preservation, disinfection, and tissue fixation for restoration, the new formulations on the market and others being experimented with achieve only two of the three and the preservation time frame is much shorter than what embalmers are used to achieving. It is yet too early to tell if this new generation of products will become accepted by the mainstream profession or remain a niche product for a niche market. Still, the non-toxic, earth-friendly nature of these products is attractive to those who have long criticized placing toxic embalming fluid in the ground. But there is a chemical out there that appears to solve the dilemma. It’s a chemical that does all three embalming functions well and deserves an unbiased look from the environmentally conscious. It’s called methylene oxide or methanal.  Methanal is not to be confused with methanol which is also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol. They are related compounds, but are not the same. This chemical has some very real advantages as an embalming agent. Methanal is 100% organic. It is a naturally occurring substance in the environment. A natural process in the atmosphere, the action of sunlight and oxygen on atmospheric methane, produces methanal. Some plants and animals also produce small quantities of it. It is emitted as a byproduct from cooking certain vegetables such as cabbage. It has even been detected in outer space.

Methanal does not accumulate in the environment. When left exposed to the atmosphere it is quickly broken down by sunlight. In the soil, it begins to be broken down by bacteria and nitrogen in a matter of days. Humans metabolize naturally occurring methanal so it does not accumulate in the human body either. Methanal is already widely used in industry. It is easily and inexpensively produced for commercial purposes. Its commercial uses are varied. It is the building block for many polymers and resins. It is so common that it is used in thousands of different products. In automotive, aerospace, and home product manufacturing it is present in many molded parts, hooks, clips, and fasteners. The clothing industry uses it to make fabrics crease resistant. Pharmaceutical companies use it in pill coatings to slow dissolution of the capsule and to promote maximum absorption of the medication. It is used as a preservative in vaccines. A derivative of methanal (methenamine) is used to treat urinary tract infections because it prevents the overuse of antibiotics. Other derivatives of methanol are used in some topical creams, cosmetics, and personal hygiene products as the active ingredient that prevents the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.

Of particular interest to the environmentally conscious, only about eight ounces of methanol will preserve the average human body. Of those 8 ounces, most will be taken into the cells where it reacts with the proteins and becomes viscous, which creates the tissue firmness. Some will naturally mix with blood during the embalming process and will be lost with the drainage and quickly neutralized in the sewer system. This means that even if it could get beyond the casket and vault, only a miniscule amount of the original methanal is present in the body in liquid form to possibly leak from the body into the ground. Even if that were to happen, as stated earlier, it is rather quickly broken down into inert elements by the naturally occurring bacteria and nitrogen in the soil. Admittedly, methanal must be used with caution in higher concentrations. The new generation of embalming chemicals still advises protective clothing and cautions against inhaling fumes or getting the chemicals on the skin or in the eyes. Due to its widespread industrial usage in a wide variety of industries, thousands of workers deal with it every day. It is in many of the products we use in our homes and offices. It is all around us in the atmosphere, and it’s in our food. Using such small amounts of the chemical at a time, even when concentrated, embalmers should have no problems working safely with methanal.

We may never find the perfect embalming agent, but methanal, if properly used, seems to come closer than anything else out there. It preserves, it disinfects, and it fixes tissue. It is organic and naturally occurring. It is inexpensive to manufacture. It rapidly degrades if left exposed to the atmosphere. If it gets into the soil it will be quickly broken down and rendered inert. Now that you know a little more about it, you may want to reread this article inserting the other common name for methanal— formaldehyde. Surprised?

Curtis D. Rostad, CAE, CFSP, FACFEI, is a licensed funeral director and embalmer with over 30 years experience as an employee, manager, and funeral home owner. He presently serves as Executive Director of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association.

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