Before the Civil War, embalming was performed mainly to preserve the body for the purpose of medical studies. There were no specific guidelines for the embalmer.
Embalming was performed by those with a medical background and usually involved the use of toxic chemicals. The only other means of preserving the body included using ice (in the form of a refrigerated coffin that housed an ice chamber on top and a drainage system below) and encasing the body in an airtight receptacle. Both could delay decomposition for an extended period of time.
Although embalming dates to ancient Egypt, it didn’t become popular in the United States until the Civil War, when there was a need to preserve the dead for the long journey home. If a body wasn’t embalmed properly, legally it couldn’t be transported, and often it would end up buried in a shallow grave on the battlefield.
A surgeon, Thomas Holmes, established himself as the father of modern-day embalming. The son of a wealthy merchant, he graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1849. Before the war, he spent years researching a safer means of preserving cadavers for medical schools across the country.
Too many medical student deaths were being attributed to contact with the toxic embalming solution during dissections. It wasn’t until the late 1850s that Holmes stumbled upon what was then believed to be a safe, nontoxic embalming fluid that contained about 4 ounces of arsenous acid (arsenic) per gallon of water - a solution that immediately killed or halted the microorganisms responsible for decomposition. He immediately began selling the product to undertakers throughout the country.
Holmes gained instant notoriety in 1861 with the death of Union Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, a good friend of President and Mrs. Lincoln’s who once had served as an apprentice in Lincoln’s law office. Lincoln was so deeply affected by Ellsworth’s death that he planned a special service for the colonel at the White House.
Secretary of State William H. Seward commissioned Holmes to embalm the body. During the funeral, the appearance of Ellsworth’s body brought the comment from Mrs. Lincoln that he looked “natural, as though he were only sleeping.” After that, Holmes’ services were in high demand and he began selling his concoction for $3 per gallon. Some embalming fluids, considered trade secrets during that time, contained creosote and even mercury.
Holmes accepted a commission as captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and performed his trade first in Washington and then directly on the battlefield. After each battle, he would erect an embalming tent to tend to the dead. His embalming table was crude and often consisted of a wooden door resting upon two barrels.
Embalming was performed by squeezing a rubber ball that would pump the embalming fluid into the deceased’s artery in the area of the armpit. This process took a couple of hours. There rarely was a need to drain blood because that occurred on the battlefield.
When the embalming was complete, the body was placed in a wooden box usually lined with zinc. On the lid appeared the name of the deceased along with his parents’ names. Inside were his personal belongings.
Holmes’ fee for embalming was $50 for an officer and $25 for an enlisted man. As the war continued and embalmers were in high demand, those figures rose to $80 and $30, respectively. Feeling he could make even more money if he worked in the private sector performing the same duties, Holmes resigned his commission and began to charge $100 per embalming.
As surgeons and pharmacists became aware of the profits to be made from embalming, they traded in their instruments for those of embalmers and followed the troops into war. After the battle, the embalmers would converge on the scene and quickly find dead officers to embalm, knowing that the family of an officer would be grateful and able to pay the fee.
One embalming company went so far as to try to obtain a government contract to embalm all Federal dead. A bill was introduced to allow the creation of a corps of military undertakers for each division, but it was never passed. To market embalming, a Washington embalmer showcased an embalmed soldier in a display window for days.
Richard Burr, a Union surgeon who served with the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, became an embalming surgeon when he saw the profit to be made. Known for severely inflating the price of embalming services, he created and distributed handbills after the battle of Antietam offering “Embalming for the Dead.” The handbills invited the curious to watch the procedure.
By the end of the war, the War Department issued General Order No. 39 Concerning Embalmers: “Hereafter no persons will be permitted to embalm or remove the bodies of deceased officers or soldiers, unless acting under the special license of the Provost Marshal of the Army, Department, or District in which the bodies may be. Provost Marshals will restrict disinterments to seasons when they can be made without endangering the health of the troops. Also license will be granted to those who can furnish proof of skill and ability as embalmers, and a scale of prices will be governed.” That order was the precedent for today’s funeral director’s licenses.
Holmes claimed to have embalmed 4,028 bodies during the Civil War. His supposed nontoxic embalming solution was, indeed, toxic and to this day continues to contaminate the soil in older cemeteries. Those who practiced embalming during the war returned to their hometowns and continued to perform the service in lieu of returning to their former trades. As for Holmes, he requested before his death in 1900 that he not be embalmed.
• Kimberly Largent-Christopher lives in Martinsburg, W.Va., where she is the chief executive of Charge the Cannons Publishing. She also is a freelance writer, editor and novelist and a former VIP (Volunteers in Parks) for Gettysburg National Military Park. You can e-mail her at KJLwrite @aol.com.
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