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The influence of the Civil War on the American funeral

The influence of the Civil War on the American funeral

Americans dying in the early part of the 1800s died at home, for the most part, and were arranged in the front parlor or a bedroom. Candles and flowers were positioned close to the corpse to help hide the smell of decomposition as the days passed. The local cabinetmaker produced a coffin, made to measure, and after a few days the decedent was laid to rest in the local churchyard or in his own backyard if he was a landowner.  

The influence of the Civil War

Then came the Civil War. Soldiers died far from home, and were left to decompose on the battlefield or were buried in mass graves. Only the wealthy could afford to have their sons shipped back home for burial. That was an unpleasant business if the distance was far, as the body would not be viewable or recognizable when it arrived. The death of Col. Elmer Ellsworth, an Army Medical Corps officer and a close friend of President Lincoln’s, brought embalming to the battlefield in 1861.

Embalming was not unknown in America at that time. Jean Gannal, a French chemist, introduced arterial embalming to the world by injecting arsenic directly into the carotid artery, writing about his method and findings, and publishing “Histoires des Embaumements” (“Stories of Embalming”) in 1838. The practice allowed anatomists to preserve specimens without worry of putrefaction or decay. Unfortunately, many anatomists died of arsenic poisoning.

Dr. Thomas Holmes, a practicing surgeon who had perfected his method of embalming in the 1850s, approached President Lincoln after Ellsworth’s death and offered to embalm Ellsworth’s body for free. Lincoln acquiesced, and thousands of people flocked to view Ellsworth’s body lying in state in the East Room of the White House. The body remained there for several days, then was taken to New York City, where thousands more lined the streets to view the funeral cortege of this popular and well-connected man, the first Union casualty of the Civil War.

Embalming the fallen dead took off; people clamored for the embalming and the return of their sons for burial at home, even if it meant severe financial hardship. Holmes alone reportedly embalmed 4,000 men over the course of the war at $100 per body. Opportunists, seeking to cash in, quickly set themselves up in business. Embalmings took place on the battlefield under makeshift tents, performed by nonprofessionals with little or no knowledge of anatomy, and results varied widely. Business was so good that the War Department was eventually forced to issue General Order 39, which stated that only properly certified embalmers could offer their services. The beginning of mortuary service as a profession had begun.

The death of Abraham Lincoln

In 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated, an event that stunned the world, and had a profound impact on embalming.  Lincoln’s body was embalmed and taken by train from Washington, D.C., on April 21 to Springfield, Ill., on May 4, traveling a circuitous route through 180 cities and seven states at 20 miles per hour. At scheduled stops, hundreds of thousands waited as long as five hours to view his body. Lincoln’s appearance was so life-like early in the trip that mourners often reached out to touch his face. However, as the trip progressed and, perhaps, Lincoln was re-embalmed again and again, it was commented on that his face began to look less realistic (and perhaps a bit mummified).

Lincoln’s death and burial journey clinched public opinion regarding embalming. After the war, embalming deceased loved ones became the norm. An entire business was born. Embalming fluid salesmen held embalming classes with “certificates of training” given upon graduation. Local carpenters and taxi services began offering funerary wares and transport, and death began to be removed from the private home.  

Formal licensing of undertakers, those undertaking the work of embalming, transporting, making or procuring the casket and other funeral paraphernalia, began in the 1930s. Women, who had initially been responsible for preparing a deceased family member for burial, were supplanted by men earning money from what had once been a service performed by familiar, loving hands. 

The death profession today

American chemical companies began experimenting with preservatives other than arsenic.  Formaldehyde, a chemical in mortuary use in Europe since the early 1800s, was marketed in this country and gained popularity as the embalming chemical of choice in the early-to-mid 20th century.  While the chemical is an excellent preservative and disinfectant, it is a recognized carcinogen, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began setting exposure limits for embalmers in the 1980s, with further regulations following. 

Today, to be licensed, funeral directors and embalmers in Virginia must graduate from an accredited mortuary school, serve a 3,000-hour internship, pass the National Boards (divided into Arts and Sciences sections) and pass the Virginia State Exam covering state laws, rules and regulations.  Only those truly dedicated to becoming part of this caring profession stay the course.

Funeral service has come a long way in the past 150 years – from a simple preparation at home to a profession – thanks to some surprising influences.

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service is the oldest continuously operated business in South Richmond since 1870. Morrissett is the only funeral home in Virginia to be awarded the National Funeral Directors Association’s prestigious “Pursuit of Excellence” award each year since 2013 and is the first funeral home in Central Virginia to have trained therapy dogs available on staff.

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