Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Brief and Pleasant Sleep...

Embalming has a role in my novel, The Rebel Wife, so I spent some time tracking down the details of the practice and its acceptance in late 19th century America.  It's a fascinating story.  Here are some details.

Dr. Bunnell's Embalming Practice outside Fredericksburg, VA.  "Free from Odor," he advertises.
Modern embalming techniques were first developed in Europe in the early 19th century.  The Napoleonic invasion of Egypt may have had some impetus, since many of these writers were fascinated by the embalmed dead discovered there from thousands of years before, but the technological advances in chemistry and medicine were likely the more important propellants.  A French chemist, Jean-Nicolas Gannal (1791-1852), wrote a treatise in 1838 discussing both his speculation as to how ancient Egyptians embalmed the dead and his more recent experiments for preserving corpses.  His methods and the purpose of his research were primarily for the preservation of corpses or body parts for dissection and teaching at medical schools, but they were quickly used for funeral practices as well.  His book included instructions for intravenous embalming and “recipes” for solutions that were effective preservatives.  (Yes, very unpleasant.) 

Dr. Richard Harlan (1796-1843)
Philadelphia physician and teacher, Dr. Richard Harlan (1796-1843) learned of the method and Gannal's book on a trip to Paris and translated a copy for an American audience in 1840.  Long title, as one did in the 19th century:  History of Embalming, and of Preparations in Anatomy, Pathology, and Natural History; Including An Account of a New Process for Embalming.  You can see the book here.  This became something of a guidebook for those interested in the preservation of the dead.  Embalming’s early proponents touted it as a way to ensure that the recipient would not risk being buried alive, apparently a serious concern in the 19th century.


The technique involved identifying a vein, and each practitioner of embalming had their personal preference—it could be the carotid artery, the jugular, the femoral artery or the subclavian vein—dealer’s choice!  An embalmer might then empty the veins of blood, flush them with an alcohol solution and then inject a chemical preservative.  Cavity embalming did not become a practice until the late 1870’s.  The chemical solution, too, could be of the embalmer’s own choice.  Embalming fluids at this time were often based on highly toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and zinc.  Harlan’s translation of Gannal’s methods provided a variety of different options and the book emphasizes the use of creosote (as from wood vinegar) as a preservative and speculates that this was the primary preservative used by ancient Egyptians. 

Any embalmer with some training in chemistry could develop their own solution.  An advertisement from the 1850’s touts the cabinet making and embalming business of African-American Pierre Casanave at No. 27 Marais-Street in New Orleans.  He invented his own “secret embalming process”.  Casanave was reputed to be "the grandest undertaker of funeral splendor in New Orleans."

There were competing methods of preserving a corpse prior to burial in the years before the Civil War.  Air-tight metal coffins were commonly used, and techniques of refrigeration were employed to preserve and transport the dead.  A much-touted coffin was Fisk’s Metallic Burial Cases, first appearing in 1848.  Cooling cases were variations on the more traditional cooling board, a board which sat atop a box that would be filled with ice and thus keep the body cold and slow decomposition.  New types of cases, with various ice chambers around the body and even a window to view the face of the deceased were developed, one from Baltimore in 1846.  In 1850, Dr. Valentine Mott in New York City counseled a combination of methods, embalming and the Fisk Metallic Burial Case: “If you connect in your meritorious plan, the practice of Mons. Gannal of Paris, of injecting blood vessels with an antiseptic fluid, the whole system of preservation will be more fully carried out.”

The carnage of the Civil War is what truly brought embalming to the forefront of caring for the dead.  And Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1899), often referred to as the “Father of American Embalming”, was the principal player.  He studied at Columbia University and practiced medicine and surgery in Brooklyn and New York.  He was critical of the toxic chemicals used in most embalming and developed his own formula, which he kept secret and never patented.  He named it “Inominata” and sold it for $3/gallon—also available by the barrel.  In 1861, he did patent a pumping mechanism, an "Apparatus for Filling Blood Vessels of Dead Bodies", and sold it for $100 to those interested in embalming.  For another $200, you could acquire an instruction manual and the “right” to use it.

When Holmes perfected his method, he displayed an embalmed corpse at Mr. Edward H. Senio’s Undertakers Store at 75 Carmine Street in Manhattan.  The press took note and Holmes brought his marketing methods to Washington, D.C. at the outbreak of the war.  He had handbills printed advertising free embalming for soldiers and he displayed embalmed corpses at undertaking shops in Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown.  He was apparently arrested at one point for creating a disturbance with his embalming practice.  Bail was $300.

The turning point for Holmes (and the practice of embalming) was the death of Colonel Elmer C. Ellsworth.  Ellsworth was a friend of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and worked in Lincoln’s Springfield law office.  He and some fellow soldiers were in Alexandria, Virginia on May 24, 1861 when they saw a Confederate flag flying from a building.  In removing it, Ellsworth was fatally shot.  The Lincolns offered the White House for his funeral service.  Dr. Thomas Holmes was asked to embalm the body.  Thousands of people, from highest to lowest, came to see him.  Mary Todd Lincoln was with a companion, Mr. W.A. Kelley, who remarked that Ellsworth looked “natural, as though he were sleeping a brief and pleasant sleep.”  Coincidentally, the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition about the death of Col. Ellsworth.

The publicity of this event made Holmes’ embalming process famous.  The unimaginable number of dead from the war, and the great distances many of them had to travel, made embalming a necessity.  Holmes himself later said he had embalmed over four thousand soldiers.  There were many who purchased his equipment and embalming fluid and spread across the North and South, advertising their services.  Holmes charged $50 for an officer and $25 for an enlisted man, but later raised his prices to $80 and $30, respectively.  For $100, a body could be embalmed, encased in an air-tight metal coffin and shipped home to family, a meaningful amount of money at that time.

Advertisement for Embalming Fluid and Equipment from 1880
Embalmers followed the armies and set up their offices in tents and available buildings near battlefields.  In 1862, the army promulgated General Order No. 33, which laid out basic services to be provided the war dead.  At this time, the retrieval and burial of bodies was often the responsibility of fellow soldiers or the Company a soldier belonged to.  Soldiers would often organize in advance the care of those dead on the field.  They would donate money to have fellow soldiers embalmed and shipped home.  There were many unethical undertakers who embalmed bodies and then held them ransom until the family paid the fee or provided shoddy service.  In light of a series of scandals, General Grant on January 9, 1865 revoked all permits for “embalming-surgeons” and required them to move outside of the army lines.  Finally, in March 1865, the War Department issued an “Order Concerning Embalmers”, establishing a system for the examination and licensing of embalmers.  The individual states would take another 30 years to duplicate this regulation.

Two other well-publicized funerals, North and South, also raised awareness of embalming (and to some extent its limitations).  Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson died on May 10, 1863 as a result of wounds from friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville.  In Richmond, the Confederate capital, all business was suspended.  The Capitol was draped in black.  Jackson lay in state at the Governor’s mansion, brought there in a hearse led by two white horses.  He was embalmed and then moved to the Confederate House of Representatives where 20,000 people filed past paying their respects.  Then his body travelled to Lexington, Virginia where services continued prior to his interment.  By this time, however, decomposition had begun and his face was covered since the features were said “not to be natural.”
General "Stonewall" Jackson

Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet on April 15, 1865.  His funeral was remarkable.  His body was embalmed and lay in state at the Capitol before making a national funeral procession by train through Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago before finally arriving in Springfield, Illinois on May 3rd.  

Lincoln's Coffin Displayed in Chicago
By this time, as Drew Gilpin Faust notes, “the shortcomings of contemporary embalming technology had become apparent…”  It was not unusual for an embalmer to advertise that bodies they embalmed “NEVER TURN BLACK!”

Lincoln's Funeral Procession Down Pennsylvania Avenue
After the war, many of the men who learned these trades returned to their homes and set up embalming and undertaking businesses, but acceptance of the practice took many years.

Check back later for more on the development of undertaking as a profession and the embalming empire of Dr. Cornelius in Nashville, Tennessee.


Faust, Drew Gilpin.  This Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Habenstein, Robert W. and Lamb, William M.  The History of American Funeral Directing.  National Funeral Directors Association, 1981.

Laderman, Gary.  Rest in Peace:  A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America.  Oxford University Press, 2003.

Laderman, Gary.  The Sacred Remains:  American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1999.

Mitford, Jessica.  The American Way of Death.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.

Walker, Juliet E.K. The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship.  The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Please also see Dr. Harlan's translation of J.N. Gannal's book and The American Cyclopaedia from 1875 has an entry on embalming.

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