Embalming A to Z: Frozen cases

Date Published: 
July, 2005
Original Author: 
Todd Van Beck
A S Turner and Sons, Decatur, Georgia
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, July 2005

No longer is the frozen body a problem unique only to states and countries that suffer from harsh winters.  Today, freezing can be a challenge for the embalmer simply because of the escalation of refrigeration in almost every hospital and coroner's office in the country.

Freezing creates problems for the embalmer. One important fact is that the embalmer needs to know whether the death occurred immediately and while the body was in a frozen state or whether only one part or several parts of the body were frozen and death occurred later as a result of the freezing or complications.

If death did not occur until some time after the freezing, there will probably be severe gangrene at the point of the freezing. If death occurred because of the freezing and the body was turned over to the embalmer in a frozen condition, the first step will be to thaw the body.

The remains need to be completely thawed before injection is begun. I have been exposed to the theory that you can inject frozen remains, and if my memory serves correctly one of the chemical companies even formulated an embalming preservative which was promoted as extremely effective on frozen cases. However, I never tried this approach. If you have, please call or e-mail me with your experience and outcome.

My thawing method
I have used the following method for thawing a body: place a sheet over the body and allow cold water to continuously saturate the sheet for several hours. Tepid water can be used, but I am cautious about using anything but cold water. Certainly one should never use hot water, because as most embalmers already know, if hot water is used, skin slip will invariable result.

I knew an old embalmer in Omaha who swore by another method of thawing. He would use a tank filled with ice water and submerge the body in this water. Within a short time the tank would appear to be filled with slush. He would remove the body, empty and refill the tank with cold water and replace the body, repeating the procedure until the tissues were thawed. I never used this method, and frankly it sounded like a lot of work back then and it still sounds like a lot of work today.

If cold water is used for thawing, it will be possible to remove the blood and to properly disinfect and preserve the body. Blood remains liquid under the influence of low temperature, but begins to decompose and clot immediately under high temperatures.

While the tissues are frozen, the skin will usually be a creamy color, but this light yellow shade will disappear as the tissues thaw and the skin bleaches.

Two important points need to be made. First, in my experience (others surely have had better outcomes), once frozen and then thawed, tissues will not become rigid under the action of many embalming chemicals.

Second, the action of many embalming chemicals on tissue that has been frozen usually results in a pink coloration that resembles the coloring we find in cases where death was caused by suffocation from carbon-monoxide poisoning.

I recommend that a pre-injection fluid not be used, but a coinjection fluid can be used. Though we can expect some drainage, I have not seen very much drainage in the cases I have embalmed. Discolorations are common and often there will be a postmortem stain that cannot be removed.
After thawing the body, you should massage the face and hands with a quality massage cream. A film of cream should be left on during embalming.

Because of tissue damage, the arterial solution should be strong, 2.5 percent to 3.0 percent HCHO to make half a gallon. I am old fashioned and still use the Slocum method of one-quarter to one-half gallon solution. I have found it takes more time, but I can control the fluid activity much better, so I don't over-or under-embalm the remains and I also don't waste chemicals.

Also, I have discovered that while I can hope for a one- or two-point injection, I usually end up doing an eight-point injection. (I use the radials.)

Pressure is in such flux today that I dare not make any suggestions, but I have heard nothing but praise for the new Dodge machine which sets the pressure automatically. What will they think of next?

The application of proper restorative art materials will serve to mellow the pink/red coloring of the skin and give splendid results.