The effects of the new restrictions on formaldehyde on the funeral industry

The chemical formaldehyde is one of a number of chemicals due to be added to the European Commission’s list of carcinogens and mutagens that are restricted. However, funeral directors are concerned that it could mean grieving relatives would not be able to visit their loved ones, as the EU ban would apply to embalming fluid, which contains the chemical.

The EU argue that the restriction would save lives by protecting the health of workers. Formaldehyde has been linked to nasopharyngeal cancer and, in some cases, can cause irritation. It’s been recognised by the industry that there are health risks associated with the chemical. But, they argue that as it’s used in a diluted form by embalmers, it doesn’t pose any significant risks.

The EU has agreed to delay the ban for three years. This would allow the funeral industry to adjust to the changes , and to try and find an alternative. If, going forward, an adequate alternative can’t be found, then the culture of Christian burials would have to change and funeral directors would most likely need to advise against families seeing their relatives in the coffin.

Jon Levett, chief executive of the National Association of Funeral Directors said: “Visiting a loved one in the chapel of rest can be both a distressing and comforting experience for families, and it is also proven to be an important part of the grieving process.”

He added: “For funeral directors, embalming offers the only realistic solution that will delay deterioration and present the deceased person at peace and as close to their appearance before death as possible; particularly where there has been a post mortem, examination, traumatic death – or to accommodate the increasing gap between death and a funeral which is now often two or three weeks.”

There are some alternatives to embalming: for example, refrigeration is sometimes used, although this can cause “an unwholesome viewing situation”, according to the funeral industry. In a statement, it went on to say: “For the close viewing of the deceased to take place, it is essential for the deceased to be embalmed so the person viewing is safe (free from the hazard of infection), and that the deceased’s remains are fixed and stable and do not chemically break down or decompose and/or release embarrassing odours from decomposition.”

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