Formaldehyde – The Ultimate Preserver

Matter and Bonding


Formaldehyde, colourless, pungent-smelling,[8] is not a very impressive looking chemical but to embalmers, it’s gold.

According to an article by the New York Times, embalmers must keep a cadaver looking “eternal.” Formaldehyde keeps bodies looking temporarily firm and alive and is the ideal chemical for the job. It fixes cell tissues through a methylene bridge and kills bacteria like no other chemical. Other chemicals can’t preserve a body long enough to be shipped. Sound like the Holy Grail of embalming fluids? Well there’s a catch; it’s a carcinogen.

With funeral homes embalming up to 150 bodies per year with 3 gallons of embalming fluid per body (50% formaldehyde,) it’s no wonder formaldehyde poses a threat. [9] Even with gloves and proper ventilation, formaldehyde has been ranked by the IARC as a group one carcinogen [3] (a common exposure or causing specific types of cancer.)[4] Several NCI studies show that those exposed to formaldehyde are at an increased risk of leukemia and brain cancer. [7] None the less, embalmers are determined to stick it through, claiming that formaldehyde is the only true way to preserve a body. [9]

Personally, I think there are always different methods to consider. Before formaldehyde, embalmers used arsenic [9] so clearly there are always other options. Alternatives include nitrite pickling salt, [2] refrigeration, [6] and green burials.[1] These methods may not be ideal but they are much safer, especially considering all the toxic waste flushed into our water system. A dead body can’t be kept forever no matter how hard someone works to create that illusion. [6]

I suppose the real question is, is the preservation of our dead worth the health of our living?


1. “What is Green Burial?” Green Burial Council, 2013. Web. April 11, 2015. <>

2. Janczyk, P, Weigner, J, Luebke-Becker, A, Kaessmeyer, S, Plendi, J.”Nitrite pickling salt as an alternative to formaldehyde for embalming in veterinary anatomy–A study based on histo- and microbiological analyses.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2011. Web. April 9, 2015. <>

3. “IARC Classifies Formaldehyde as Carcinogenic to Humans.” International Agency for Research on Cancer. 2004. Web. April 9, 2015. <;

4. Lumley, Thomas. “What’s a Group 1 Carcinogen.” Stats Chat. 2013. Web. April 10, 2015. <;

5. “Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.” The American Cancer Society. 2015. Web. April 11, 2015. <;

6. “Embalming: What You Should Know.” Funeral Consumers Alliance. 2015. Web. April 10, 2015. < >

7. “Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute. 2011. Web. April 11, 2015. <;

8. “Formaldehyde.” Carex Canada. 2015. Web. April 8, 2015. <;

9. Martin, Andrew. ”Despite Risk, Embalmers still Embrace Preservative.” New York Times. 2011. Web. April, 2015. <>

Image Credits:

Brain –

Danger –

Chemical Formula –


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. shababa huda
    May 28, 2015 @ 02:17:54

    Your post makes me feel really bad for embalmers, since it’s such a gloomy place to work in, and formaldehyde is dangerous. For your question, I agree with the part where you say we could use old alternatives, but does it really matter? I mean, bodies are going to be in a coffin for a long time, and no one checks the state of the body (Do they?). So, I guess what I mean is I don’t think we should bother trying to preserve our dead at the price of our living.



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