Weird History
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The Gnarly History of How Embalming Came To Dominate The Dead

Updated December 12, 2017 22.8k views14 items

Embalming has a long history and, once Civil War-era surgeons and undertakers began to use chemicals rather than simply keeping bodies on ice, it caught on quickly in the US. Prior to the American Civil War, embalming in the US was a practice reserved for medical researchers and professionals or, occasionally, the extremely wealthy. With all of the death, decay, and distance during the Civil War, preserving bodies became desirable, practical, and ultimately a lucrative business. Civil War undertakers had a booming business on their hands.

After the War, embalmers began to prepare bodies with all kinds of diseases and injuries, preserving them for mourners who could look at their deceased loved ones and get closure. The history of embalming in America is a strange one, yet the ritual of embalming ended up becoming as common as death itself.

  • Thomas Holmes Developed A Safer Way Of Embalming Bodies In 1849

    The "father of American embalming," Thomas Holmes, developed what he believed to be a safe chemical solution for embalming bodies in the 1850s. He combined "4 ounces of arsenous acid (arsenic) per gallon of water" and immediately began selling his creation to undertakers around the country.

  • Holmes Embalmed One Of Abraham Lincoln's Associates In 1861, Making A Name For Himself

    Holmes put his embalming techniques to the test when Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth died in May, 1861. Ellsworth had worked with President Lincoln in Illinois and on his presidential campaign. He died while removing the Confederate flag at Alexandria, VA, and after his death, Lincoln offered to hold funeral services at the White House. Holmes either visited the President or appealed to Secretary of War William Seward and offered to embalm Ellsworth.

    Holmes embalmed Ellsworth for no charge at the Washington Navy Yard. Ellsworth's funeral was well-attended and upon viewing his body, Mrs. Lincoln noted that he looked "natural, as though he were only sleeping." Ellsworth became a martyr of sorts, one that was able to be left visible for a longer period of time due to the embalming process.

    After his success with Ellsworth, Holmes was commissioned by the Army Medical Corps to embalm Union officers so that their bodies could be transported home after their deaths. Later all Union soldiers were to be embalmed.

  • In The Midst Of The Civil War, Embalmers Needed To Find Customers

    Once commissioned to embalm fallen Union men, Holmes is said to have embalmed as many as 4,000 himself. He went to battlefields and embalmed men in the tent he put up on makeshift tables. The process took a couple of hours and involved "squeezing a rubber ball that would pump the embalming fluid into the deceased’s artery in the area of the armpit." Once the body was embalmed, it was placed in a zinc-lined box or a metallic coffin and transported by train. Confederate embalmers sprang up as well, often freelancers out on the battlefield circuit.

    Holmes sold his embalming fluid - made up of arsenic, zinc, and mercury - for $3 per gallon to other surgeons and physicians, who soon began following Union troops around to battlefields. Embalmers would approach men prior to battle, negotiate what would happen if the soldier should die, and give him a card stating that arrangements had been made for embalming and transportation.

  • Embalmers Began Advertising

    At least one Union surgeon, Richard Burr, saw an opportunity in embalming and took steps to corner the market. He printed fliers offering his services but also offered to let people watch his process. Burr was also one of the surgeons that took advantage of his position, however. In 1864, he was charged by Timothy Dwight of New York of embalming his son without his permission. Burr then held Dwight's body until he paid the $100 embalming fee.

    Other embalmers, Holmes included, would put bodies of unknown soldiers on display to demonstrate their ability to make life-like corpses. Holmes had shops in Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria.