Embalmer

The Job and What's Involved

Embalmers prepare the bodies of dead people before their funeral. Embalming is carried out for three reasons:

  • To preserve the body from the time of death until the funeral.
  • To present the body in a natural, lifelike way that gives the appearance of sleep.
  • To prevent any infection spreading to relatives and funeral staff.

The role of an embalmer usually involves:

  • Injecting a disinfecting chemical (formaldehyde) under pressure into the arterial system of the deceased, to preserve the body.
  • Removing fluids from the deceased and washing the body with germicidal soap.
  • If the body has severe injuries, using wax and plaster of Paris to restore parts of the body, and using make-up to give the restored parts a lifelike colour.
  • Washing and drying the hair, sometimes using hairspray and applying light make-up to the face.

Embalmers use an embalming pump and pressure bottle. They also use surgical instruments.

Some embalmers are employed by firms of funeral directors and combine the work with other roles, such as funeral administrator or pallbearer. Others specialise in embalming.

Embalmers generally work 37 to 39 hours a week, Monday to Friday, but may need to work variable hours, including occasional weekends. Overtime and part-time work are possible.

They work in a clinically clean environment where the temperature is slightly lower than normal room temperature. They spend long periods standing and bending, and wear protective clothing, such as rubber boots, gloves and a theatre gown.

Many embalmers are self-employed and work for more than one funeral director, so they may have to travel between different workplaces. A driving licence is often required.

Trainee embalmers may start on around £12,500 a year. With some experience, they may earn around £17,000 a year.

When they have built up a reputation or offer specialist services, embalmers may earn £30,000 a year or more.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are embalmers throughout the UK. Many are employed by a firm of funeral directors. Others are self-employed and work for several funeral directors.

Around 1,300 qualified embalmers in the UK are members of The British Institute of Embalmers (BIE). Staff turnover is low and it can be a difficult area of work to enter. Vacancies for qualified embalmers are advertised in trade publications, such as The Funeral Director Monthly, Funeral Service Journal or Funeral Service Times. Vacancies for trainees are rarely advertised. Anyone interested in a career in embalming would be advised to approach a local funeral director.

Education and Training

No formal qualifications are required for entering embalming. Some employers may prefer applicants with GCSE's (A*-C), including English, or equivalent qualifications. Subjects such as maths, science and religious studies may also be useful.

Trainees do not need any formal qualifications to join a study course for the foundation module of the International Examinations Board of Embalmers (IEBE).

Embalmers must have vaccinations against hepatitis A and B, tetanus, polio, typhoid and tuberculosis (TB).

Previous experience in the funeral service or in mortuary work may be useful, although applicants often have experience from a variety of backgrounds. Candidates with knowledge of different religions and their corresponding views on death may be at an advantage.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training is mainly on the job, with part-time tuition from a registered tutor at weekends or evenings, or through distance learning.

Most embalmers work for qualifications awarded by the IEBE. Trainees must pass the foundation unit exam before they can register with the BIE. They then study five further modules to become members of the BIE. Study areas include anatomy, physiology, bacteriology and practical embalming.

Trainees have to sit tests at the end of each module under exam conditions and achieve at least 60 per cent in each module. As trainees become more proficient in each area of practical work, tutors complete skills achievement sheets, which are sent to the IEBE. For the final practical assessment, trainees embalm both an autopsied and non-autopsied body. (An autopsy is the dissection and examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death.)

Most courses to prepare students for examinations are part time, but a small number are full time. The BIE website has a list of accredited tutors.

Foundation degrees are available in:

- Mortuary science at the University of Chester

- Funeral services at the University of Bath

These courses are aimed mainly at those already working in the sector. The programme's cover subjects such as biological chemistry, cell and tissue science, anatomy and physiology, and the biological markers of death and decomposition. In addition, they examine contemporary funeral practices, communication with the bereaved and those involved in working with the bereaved. The ethical, legal and cultural aspects of death and funeral practice, and health and safety are also covered. Both courses offer a top-up route to achieve a BSc (Hons) qualification.

Some embalmers train for work in specialist areas, such as restorative or reconstruction work. This may involve embalming damaged bodies, such as people killed in road vehicle or air traffic accidents or as a result of violent crimes. Some embalmers in the UK offer this training, but it is more common to train for this specialist work in America.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An embalmer should:

  • Be sensitive to other people's feelings.
  • Not be squeamish.
  • Have good hand skills for using tools and surgical instruments.
  • Have a serious and dignified manner.
  • Pay attention to detail, as the smallest missed detail may be of major importance to the bereaved.
  • Have an understanding of, and respect for, different religious faiths and people with no religious faith.
  • Maintain strict confidentiality and refrain from discussing details of cases in public.
  • Be able to follow strict health and safety procedures.
  • Be clean and neat, and have a smart appearance.

Your Long Term Prospects

An embalmer may be able to progress to work as a funeral director. Some embalmers become self-employed and set up their own business, or become partners in an existing firm. It may be possible to work abroad.

Mortuary science graduates may be able to move to bioscience or biomedical careers.

Get Further Information

British Institute of Embalmers (BIE),
Anubis House, 21c Station Road,
Knowle, Solihull, West Midlands B93 0HL
Tel: 01564 778991
Website: www.bioe.co.uk

British Institute of Funeral Directors (BIFD),
1 Gleneagles House, Vernon Gate,
South Street, Derby DE1 1UP
Tel: 0800 032 2733
Website: www.bifd.org.uk

National Association of
Funeral Directors (NAFD),
618 Warwick Road, Solihull,
West Midlands B91 1AA
Tel: 0845 230 1343
Website: www.nafd.org.uk

National Society of Allied and Independent
Funeral Directors, SAIF Business Centre,
3 Bullfields, Sawbridgeworth, Herts CM21 9DB
Tel: 0845 230 6777
Website: www.saif.org.uk

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