Abraham Lincoln was possibly our greatest president, and you would think his body would be treated with respect after he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865. And in a way, it was: Lincoln became one of the first people in America to be embalmed. After Lincoln's death, his corpse was treated with chemicals, and, thanks to a lengthy funeral train, people across the country got to come and have a look at it to say their farewells.
Seeing a well-preserved body drastically changed how people thought about death and funerals. Instead of seeing the ravages of time, they were able to look at a corpse that hardly seemed to have altered at all. People were comforted by the idea that death didn’t change anything, and decided embalming was the best way to go. Soon this process became a normal part of American death rituals.
Before The Civil War Funerals Were Simple (And Smelly) Affairs
Pre-Civil War Americans had very simple ways of dealing with their dead. They would wash them, dress them up in something nice, and light some candles around the body in the hopes of hiding the inevitable stink. Maybe friends and relatives would stop by to say goodbye one last time. At the cemetery the body would be lowered into the earth in a simple wooden box. People would say some nice things and that was it; a person's journey on this earth was over.
The Civil War Was Big Business For Embalmers
The Civil War was the bloodiest confrontation the country had ever seen, which meant there were suddenly a huge number of dead bodies laying around. Bodies decompose quickly when left alone, which meant that most soldiers were just abandoned on the battlefields to rot. But not everyone wanted to return to the earth where they fell.
Embalming was invented in Europe in the 1830s and by the time the Civil War kicked off it had made its way to America. Some of these newly-minted embalmers would approach soldiers who were about to go into battle and offer their services. Not surprisingly, the military considered this “bad for morale” and ended the practice.
Soldiers weren’t the only people who could chose to be embalmed. Many families, especially rich Northern ones, often paid to have their loved ones returned to them, and in order to make the long journey the bodies had to be embalmed. It is estimated that 40,000 out of 600,000 deceased soldiers went through the embalming process.
Before Lincoln, The Few Embalmers In Business Weren’t Always On The Level
As the need for embalming grew, more and more men (and it was basically only men) got involved. As with nearly every profession, not every embalmer was on the up and up.
Families were so desperate to get their loved ones back to be buried at home that some embalmers started price gouging. The military offered bounties for embalmed corpses ($30 for a soldier and $80 for an officer, or around $900 to $2500 today) so it wasn’t unusual to see embalmers fighting for dead bodies after the battles were done raging.
It got so bad that the War Department had to issue General Order Number 39, which stated that anyone who wanted to interact with with dead soldiers had to have a special license. It also set the price for embalming services. Unfortunately, this wasn’t decreed until March of 1865, when the war was almost over, so unscrupulous embalmers thrived for most of the conflict.
The First Casualty Of The Civil War Was Embalmed
The president would have been familiar with embalming by the time it was his turn to undergo the process. The first casualty of the Civil War was actually embalmed. His name was Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, and he was a friend of Lincoln’s. He was killed on May 24, 1861, shot after taking down a Confederate flag from the top of a hotel in Alexandria, VA.
An embalmer named Dr. Holmes approached Lincoln and offered to embalm the body for free, probably just wanting to show off his new technique. The coffin was made with a special window so you could see Ellsworth’s face and chest. Thousands of people turned out to see the colonel’s body in Washington and New York, and he wasn't buried for 10 days. The process still wasn't foolproof, with the New York Times reporting at the time that the face had a “livid paleness.”
While not perfect, Lincoln must have liked the idea of embalming, since when his 11-year-old son Willie died less than a year later, the Lincolns asked that his body go through the same process. This let them keep the body in the White House longer and allowed them to grieve for their son.