A while back, I posted about the development of embalming practices during the Civil War. The primary practitioners of embalming ultimately were undertakers, although the science itself was developed by chemists and doctors in the mid-19th century. The profession of undertaking, however, goes back much further and was often associated with a variety of other trades.
|The Company of Undertakers by William Hogarth, c. 1736 (Wikimedia Commons)|
|John Hislop, Undertaker, Brisbane, c. 1902 (State Library of Queensland)|
He is master of ceremonies at burials and mourning assemblies, grandmarshal at funeral processions, the only true yeoman of the body, over which he exercises dictatorial authority from the moment that breath has taken leave to that of its final commitment to the earth. His ministry begins where the physician's, lawyer's, and diviner's end...He is bed maker to the dead. The pillows which he lays never rumple. The day of interment is the theatre in which he displays the mysteries of this art.
|John Peak & Son, Funeral Undertaker, Boston, c. 1868 (Wikimedia Commons)|
Livery stables also began to get into the game. As people demanded more elaborate funeral displays along with hearses and the horses that pull them, livery keepers offered these items for rental and began taking on the management of the funeral in its entirety. An entry in the 1824 city directory of Baltimore shows a livery stable with undertaking services. In 1856, the city directory of Providence, Rhode Island, states: Gardner T. Swartz, Livery Stable Keeper, Undertaker, Tomb Proprietor and Dealer in ready-made coffins, of all kinds and at all prices, near the corner of Pine and Dorrance Street, Providence.
|John M. Foll, Undertaker, c. 1859 (www.mynonurbanlife.com)|
Cornelius was born in 1824 in Union County, Pennsylvania. He apprenticed as a carpenter and made furniture as well as coffins. At some point, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee and by 1849 was the foreman of the undertaking and cabinet-making business of McComb and Carson. By 1861, he was sole proprietor of the firm and focused exclusively on undertaking. He won the contract to bury the Confederate dead and when the Union army arrived in 1862, he got the contract to bury the Union dead at the same terms. He opened branch establishments in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Stevenson, Huntsville, and Bridgeport, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia. He claimed to have buried or shipped to their homes over 33,000 war dead.
|C. Bohnefeld, Agent, Undertaker and Cabinet Maker, Atlanta Constitution March 1877|
I suppose I embalmed and had embalmed some 3,000-3,500 soldiers and employees of the U.S. Army. Embalming was not introduced until after the Confederate Army left, so I did not embalm any Confederates. I embalmed and shipped General McPherson, General Scott and General Garesche. The latter had his head shot clear off. I shipped nearly all of the Anderson cavalry to Philadelphia at one time. After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels, majors, captains and privates by carloads some days.The work was obviously overwhelming and after the departure of Dr. Lewis, Cornelius trained Prince Greer to perform the embalming work, one of the first African-American embalmers. Greer was a slave and his owner, a cavalry officer, was killed in battle. Greer contacted Cornelius to have the body embalmed so that it could be delivered back home to Texas, and himself ended up training and remaining with Cornelius. Cornelius recollected:
When Lewis, the embalmer, quit, I then undertook the embalming myself with a colored assistant named Prince Greer who appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he became himself an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war, and was very successful. It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone, and was always careful, of course coming to me in a critical case. He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.
|Horses and carriages before C.W. Franklin, Undertaker,|
an African-American businessman in Chattanooga, Tennessee c. 1899 (LOC)
|My great-grandfather, Henry P. Schwarz in his uniform with the O'Fallon Fire Department, c. 1910|
Fritz, Paul S., “The Undertaking Trade in England: Its Origins and Early Development, 1660-1830”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, (1994-1995).
Habenstein, Robert W. and Lamers, William M., The History of American Funeral Directing, National Funeral Directors Association, 1981.
Walker, Juliet E.K., “Racism, Slavery, and Free Enterprise: Black Entrepreneurship in the United States before the Civil War”, The Business History Review, Vol. 60, No. 3, Autumn, 1986.