An embalmer is someone who treats bodies so that they will resist decay. The vast majority work in the funeral industry, preparing bodies for burial, but they can be employed in other industries as well. They receive varying levels of training, depending on where they practice, with many attending mortuary school to learn embalming practices, although they can also train in some community colleges and trade schools, and in some regions, they may learn by apprenticeship.
In some cases, an embalmer may also be a funeral director, although many work exclusively to prepare bodies. Funeral directors handle all aspects of a burial, making arrangements for disposition and working with the survivors of the deceased to address their needs and concerns. Embalmers specifically work with the body, and in a small funeral home, both tasks may be handled by the same person.
This person stores the body under refrigeration, bringing it out when he or she is ready to perform the embalming. The process starts with washing the body, after which embalming fluid is introduced to preserve it. Embalming fluid is typically tinted to give the body a more life-like appearance, and it only preserves the body for several days; the more extensive embalming necessary to make a body resist decay in the long term would likely make it look rather unpleasant. Modern funeral embalming is performed primarily as an aesthetic service, as it does not preserve the body in the long term or prevent the spread of disease.
Once the body is embalmed, the embalmer applies makeup, dresses the body, and fixes the hair. He or she performs a number of tasks that are designed to prevent seepage and sagging in the coffin so that the body will be aesthetically pleasing, and this person can also perform restorative cosmetics on bodies that have been severely damaged. For example, he or she may fashion a replacement ear for someone who lost an ear in a car accident and may also repair visible wounds so that they will not be unsettling to view.
Some embalmers specialize in embalming bodies that are difficult to handle. Autopsied bodies require a special embalming technique, as do bodies that have been severely disfigured. Smaller funeral homes may send such bodies out to a more experienced professional, rather than maintaining a specialist on staff.
The embalming process is also used to prepare bodies and anatomical specimens for study in medical and veterinary schools. Medical embalmers use slightly different techniques that are focused on preventing decay, rather than preserving a life-like appearance for a funeral.