Embalming A to Z: Arteriosclerosis

Date Published: 
March, 2004
Original Author: 
Todd Van Beck
A S Turner and Sons, Decatur, GA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March-April 2004

(Editor’s note: This is No.3 in a regular column by funeral director, embalmer and educator Todd Van Beck, who aims to promote high standards in embalming and restorative arts by sharing information about how to handle challenging cases.)

For years, this vascular condition has been a problem for most embalmers. This disease begins in the inner coating of the walls of the artery and results finally in a hardening and deterioration of the artery walls.

The vessel loses its elasticity and hence is easily broken. This has to be one of the greatest frustrations to embalmers when one of these normally elastic vessels breaks. In fact, sometimes the result of this condition is that the vessel is entirely obliterated.

Causes of arteriosclerosis are well known to embalmers. They include chronic alcoholism, gout, overeating, stress and kidney disease.

Bodies with this condition are usually not out of the ordinary so far as external appearances are concerned. Often the person finally died from a stroke and/or heart condition. Sometimes the sclerosis continues into the capillaries and then the embalmer is confronted with a condition resembling phlebitis.

The body should be massaged with a high quality massage cream, one manufactured by a trusted embalming chemical company. I have seen embalmers use Vaseline or other petroleum-based creams, resulting in an increased dehydration of the tissues, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve with the massage cream.

Quality massage treatments usually result in improved quality of embalming, because the cream helps remove the external film of discoloration and also soften and prepare the skin to receive the embalming chemical. A light film of massage cream should be left on the hands and face to prevent the dry air from coming into contact with the skin of these exposed areas, further contributing to dehydration.

To raise the artery, instead of using the arterial injection tube, use a child-sized arterial tube—not necessarily a radial tube, but a normal child-sized injector cannula. There are two good reasons for doing this. First, it will prevent breaking the inner coating of sclerotic material and pushing this up ahead of the cannula. Second, it will prevent too rapid injection, which would result in a rapture of the artery's inner coat, completely blocking the injection process.

I also suggest that when ligating the vessel to the child-sized injection tube the embalmer use regular gauze instead of regular ligature to tie the vessel to the injection tube. The gauze is wider, thus it distributes the sealing action of the ligature without cutting the fragile vessel.

Also, it might be necessary to "snake" the injection cannula in and between the sclerotic materials. It is well worth the time to carefully manipulate the cannula into place. Of course, there are no guarantees, and in some advanced and complicated cases multiple injection and drainage sites will need to be used.

I once knew a veteran trade embalmer who used the axillary with a child's injection cannula as the injection site and drained from the femoral vein with profound results.

Use a quality pre-injection solution of 4 ounces per half gallon and inject slowly at approximately a gallon every 15 minutes. Then formulate your arterial solution according to your own judgment and desire. Remember that today one of the major problems in embalming is using an arterial solution that is too weak or at a volume that is too low to saturate the tissues.

These cases can be very challenging, but if we use precautions, time and patience, the results can be very satisfactory.