Rachel Carline

How to become an embalmer

Becoming an embalmer isn’t a common career choice, but it is an incredibly rewarding one. Embalmers help preserve and restore the person who died, creating a peaceful and lasting image for their family and friends.

Embalming is essentially preserving the body using chemicals to slow down the process of deterioration. It’s often recommended if families want to visit their loved one in a chapel of rest, or when the funeral isn’t going to take place straight away. Embalming can also help your loved one look more at peace, especially if they died after an accident or illness.

If you’ve ever wondered ‘What do embalmers do?’ or considered a career as an embalmer, we can help. Here, Rachel Carline, 31, an embalmer with Co-op Funeralcare in Oldham tells us all about her job – and find out how you can join the profession.

‘My husband dreads going out with people we don’t know. As soon as they ask me “What do you do?”, he knows the whole evening will be taken up with talking about my job! But I don’t mind answering their questions. There’s nowhere else really people can go to can ask them, or they worry that bringing up these topics with friends will make them look weird. That’s one of the reasons I started my podcast, The Eternal Debate, to help answer all those questions.

‘I started training to be an embalmer when I was quite young, at 22. I always knew I wanted to work in funerals. I was fascinated with Ancient Egypt as a child, especially the mummies, and I loved learning about human biology. When my grandma died, I went to see her but she didn’t look good. That experience must have left a lasting impression, as years later I decided I wanted to become an embalmer. I wanted to care for people after they died, to do the very last thing you could for that person.

‘I started as a funeral arranger in a Co-op funeral home, but I began going in early to learn from the embalmers. That gave me vital work experience and helped me work out if being an embalmer was what I really wanted. Many people think it’s just doing hair and make-up, or preserving the body, but it’s so much more. Seeing everything that was involved convinced me it was the right role for me. I have the utmost respect for everyone I embalm, and I believe my job is a real privilege.

‘My training involved 5 theoretical and 2 practical exams (see box below for more information). There’s so much to learn – embalming is a mixture of maths, chemistry and anatomy. To work out the amounts of fluids you need, such as formaldehyde, water and dyes, you have to know how much the body weighs, how long it's been since the person died, how long until the funeral, plus many other factors. But we always see them as a whole person, not an equation.

How to become an embalmer

  • Your employer could help you get into the role if you already work in the industry, or you can apply to do specialist courses approved by the British Institute of Embalmers
  • Training usually lasts 2 to 3 years. GCSE-level maths, English and Chemistry may be required. You can do additional training in different aspects of embalming, such as facial reconstruction
  • You’ll need to be kind, sensitive, pay attention to detail, have excellent people skills, a knowledge of chemicals and want to help others
  • In 2022, UK average starting salary is around £17,000 p.a., rising to £28,000 p.a. with experience. An embalmer at Co-op Funeralcare can expect to earn around £33,000 - £34,000
  • You’ll work approximately 40-43 hours a week, including some weekends
  • Career progression includes specialising in certain medical conditions or working with disasters teams
  • See the National Careers Service for more information
Light pink flowers
Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

‘I don’t remember everyone I’ve embalmed but some are significant, like my grandad. I embalmed him in 2015 after he passed away from oesophageal cancer. No matter who it is, I embalm everyone as though they are a close friend or relative, so it didn’t feel that different. I had been heavily involved in looking after him when he was ill at home, so why wouldn’t I do it when he passed away? I wanted him to look his best, so I shaved his face, cut his fingernails and talked to him. That really helped with my grieving process, as I took a lot of closure from that time I spent with him.

‘Photographs are so important. I knew what my grandad looked like before he got poorly, but people can look very different after they die. A photo of the person who died helps me make them look as much like the person their family knew as possible. People think embalming is all about preservation but in my opinion, presentation is just as important. When a family come to see their loved one, I want them to look peaceful. Knowing I’ve created a comforting and pleasant lasting image for their family is incredibly rewarding.

‘On a typical day, I might embalm 3 or 4 people – it takes on average 2 hours to embalm someone, but you never know what you’re going to be presented with. For example, if I take someone into my care who had a post-mortem or who’s been in an accident, I might spend the whole day restoring them. But that’s the best bit of my job: knowing the difference my work makes to what their families will remember.

‘Although I love my work, sometimes it can be quite traumatic. In 2017 I worked on several victims of the Manchester bombings, which was a difficult experience. And it’s never easy caring for babies or very young children. In those situations, I tell myself “This is really upsetting, but what I can do is help them look at peace”, then go home and have a good cry!

‘We do get mental health support through Co-op and the British Institute of Embalmers, but some people in the industry still have that attitude of “If you have feelings, you can’t do your job properly”. For me it’s the opposite. The day it doesn’t affect me, or I don’t care who I’m embalming, is the day I stop. Until then, I’ll keep working to care for the person who died and comfort their families.’

• To find your perfect role with Co-op Funeralcare, see our job vacancies.

• For advice and bereavement support, read our expert guides.