Can You Have An Open Casket Without Embalming?


There are so many options today when it comes to having a funeral, it can be overwhelming sometimes.

Some people want to have more of a traditional funeral with an open casket, but do not want to have the body traditionally embalmed for one reason or another.

With so many families forgoing the services of a funeral director, what should you know?

Embalming is not required by law for almost all funerals, so having an open casket without it is possible. However, there are stipulations and timeframes that must be adhered to when doing this. Each state is different and laws change if a funeral is happening in that state or crossing its borders.

There are many different reasons why one would want to have an open casket without embalming. One of the main reasons is that embalming involves harsh chemicals that are hazardous to people and the environment.

There are a lot of nuances and time frames when you should have viewing for the open casket, reading on will help you to figure out the best way to do it. 

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What is embalming? 

Before we get into the laws and technicalities if embalming is required by law, let’s talk about what exactly it is and the different types of embalming. 

Embalming is the technique and art of preserving human beings’ remains by treating them usually with chemicals (man-made or natural)  to slow down and delay the decomposition.

The reasons behind this are to keep it in the best conditions as possible to have for a viewing, religious reasons or science. The main goals when performing embalming are for sanitization, presentation, and preservation.

Embalming does not stop a body from returning to its natural state on the earth. It only slows the process down so that a family can have an ample amount of time to have services.

An embalmed body can stay for around two weeks if embalmed properly.  (See this article about how long you can wait until stating the embalming process)

Families may choose to embalm for a variety of reasons including the desire to have a public viewing and ceremonies with the body present.

Titan Caskets

One reason a family may choose embalming is when additional family members live far away, and it may take several days for everyone to come together to make decisions and have a final viewing.

What are the state laws about having an open casket without embalming? 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a lot of guidelines and rules about funerals that you should look at even before you go to the funeral home. This is for your protection so you will not have any issue or be sold anything that you did not want. 

The FTC requires all funeral homes to tell people that embalming is not required by law and it should be in the general price list. (read my article for the questions you SHOULD ask a funeral home to save money)

There are special cases where embalming is required by law. 

It may be necessary if you select certain funeral arrangements such as a service with public viewing in some states, transporting the body across state lines, and disease prevention you may need to have the deceased embalmed. 

Embalming is required by a few states such as Alaska and Alabama when the body leaves the borders of these states. Also in California, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, and New Jersey when the body crosses its borders on a common carrier like a  train or airplane.

Embalming and other forms of preservation such as refrigeration might be required also if the viewing or wake is past the waiting period. 

Not all states have waiting periods, but the ones that do are usually around 24 to 72 hours. After the waiting period has ended the remains must be embalmed or preserved in some sort of way.  

When you are doing research on whether you have to have the body embalmed you will need to check state by state.

Below are also a few definitions of commonly used phrases to help you understand what it all means.  If you do choose to transport the body from another state or country make sure that you check the local and federal laws.

There can be heavy fines and even incarceration if something was to happen even if it was by accident. 

  • Waiting Period– Some states require that human remains be refrigerated or embalmed for a certain number of hours or days. This could be for a holding period or for a viewing.
  • Disease-In the event that a person is infected or even suspected to have a disease or virus embalming may be required. You may not even be able to have the body embalmed and it may need to be cremated if this is the issue. Please check with your local public health department if your loved one had this. 
  • Interstate Transport– Some states have laws that require embalming to happen on bodies that are going to be shipped out of state. Some states even require it if you are just transporting the body across the state. 
  • Common Carrier– This has to do with the shipping of the body, some states will require that the body is embalmed before it can be shipped on such things as airlines, semi-trucks, and ships.  This may not be the case if a funeral home or you are transporting the body, be sure to check before you transport the body. 

What are my other options besides embalming with formaldehyde? 

The most common way to keep a body for short periods of time (less than a week) is refrigeration or dry ice (if you are having a home burial). These two are usually used is the burial is immediate and is not recommended for long-term preservation of the body. 

The main reason is for aesthetics and the smell that the body with the release is not very pleasant. Some funeral homes and most places of worship will not even allow an open casket funeral if the body is not embalmed.

These places are usually in close quarters and the smell is very potent and can permeate into all of the furniture and objects there.

If you still want an open casket but without the harsh chemicals you can use one of the several formaldehyde-free, biodegradable embalming fluids.

These are usually made from essential oils, and will adequately preserve the body just as long as regular embalming fluid. If you worried about the environment read about Green Burials here they are a wonderful option for your wallet and the environment. 

Why do funeral homes promote embalming?

It is the same reason that most people promote anything, money. Funerals are big business and embalming costs on average around $400.00 while refrigeration of the body costs much less and is often included in the price of the funeral.

This also does not include the dressing of the deceased and other aspects of the open casket funeral that can add up to even more.  

The other reason that the funeral industry promotes embalming and viewing is so that can help those to grieve and move forward in that process.

For some, this is true while others and especially younger children may not be. If you are bringing a child to a funeral read here about what age is appropriate to bring a child to a funeral

Do I want to have an open or closed casket? Is embalming the right choice?

This is a hard choice and may depend on a few factors. After you have checked to see if that have left behind a will or any instructions here are a few points to consider. 

  1. Family values–  A family and the deceased’s religion, culture, and country of origin will play a major role in their identity and this decision. It’s impossible to list the groups, religions, and cultures that do and do not view the body of the deceased. It may even be different if it is buried or cremated, so check with the family and house of worship if possible. 
  1. Personal Beliefs- Realistically some will want to see the body and some will not. This is an oversimplification but it is true. For whatever reasons people usually feel strongly in one way or another. You could ask the close family and friends what they think before you choose. 
  1. Cost- As stated about it will cost more to have an open casket whether it is embalmed, refrigerated, or put on dry ice. Some may not have enough money for this if you are having issues with paying for the funeral read here to learn more about how to have a funeral if you can’t afford it. 
  1. Type of Death- You may not have an option depending on how the loved one passed away. If it was a death that the body was dismembered, you probably do not want to have an open casket, but the choice is up to you.
  1. Your Memory- If you and a lot of your loved ones have not seen the deceased in a long time they might look different from your memory. People tend to have a closed casket often and choose to have pictures so they could remember the deceased when they were at their best. 
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