While many of us think of the Victorians as death-obsessed what many don’t know is how drastically American funeral practices changed during that era due to the Civil War.
Prior to the war, funerals and preparation for burial were done at home, usually by the deceased’s female relatives. Just as little girls were given baby dolls to prepare them for motherhood, they were sometimes given little death kits to prepare them for a different responsibility in the home. The kits included a doll, burial clothing, and a small coffin - definitely more morbid than the Polly Pocket dolls I played with as a kid. While your family would take care of your dead body, there were still undertakers at that time. They sold things like burial garments or custom-made coffins and they rented hearses but there was no funeral industry as we know it today. The undertaker could help, but the family was ultimately in charge.
The Civil War remains the deadliest conflict in U.S. history and the vast majority of these deaths were taking place far away from the soldiers’ homes. Their families couldn’t be with them as they died or take care of their bodies. When the soldiers were brought home, it was on long train trips often in the sweltering southern heat, so the smell was atrocious. Some train conductors refused to transport bodies in wood coffins, and many families couldn’t afford sealed metal caskets. Of course, those people still wanted their sons brought back to them.
Enter Dr. Thomas Holmes, the father of modern embalming. While forms of embalming have existed for millennia, before the nineteenth century it was usually only used on dissected animals, not on humans. Mass transportation of corpses created demand for the practice.
In 1861, the first casualty of the Civil War, Elmer Ellsworth, was embalmed by Holmes. Ellsworth happened to be a close friend of President Lincoln who, upon seeing Holmes’s work, requested that the embalming practice to be taught to others for the purpose of preserving and transporting dead Union soldiers back home. Holmes trained battlefield surgeons in embalming and it became widespread - and profitable. Holmes charged $100 a body (over $2,000 in today’s money) and other embalmers became highly competitive. They set up tents by the front and offered a pre-payment plan to soldiers who wanted to be embalmed should they die in the next battle. Holmes went a step beyond this and displayed unidentified embalmed soldiers in the windows of his New York shop to advertise his "service".
After the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated, his body was embalmed, displayed in Washington for almost a week, and taken on a multi-state parade leading up to his burial in Illinois. People were amazed at how lifelike he looked days or weeks after his death. This combined with seeing the embalmed soldiers brought back led to embalming becoming a common practice as well as a profession. Before the war, anyone (any woman, really) could take care of a body. After the war, professional embalmers took over the practice, promoting the idea that it took a certain expertise and knowledge your loving wife or sister just didn’t have. New industry regulations were created and soon embalming could only be done by licensed professionals. Today it is the norm in America and Canada, but not in other countries, and misconceptions abound. People are led to believe that embalming is legally required (it’s not in most cases) or that it makes the body safer to handle (it doesn’t). Embalming is a huge source of revenue for funeral homes so professional embalmers will continue to do it despite their own exposure to carcinogens.
In reaction to this, there is a growing movement aimed at changing American funeral practices. For some, that means returning to the ritual of a home funeral and for others it means exploring more eco-friendly options like green burials. There is increasing demand for alkaline hydrolysis, sometimes called water cremation or aquamation, which is more energy efficient than a traditional cremation but has the same result. At the moment, North Carolina is one of only 18 states which has legalized alkaline hydrolysis - surprisingly progressive of us!