Embalming came into vogue in Civil War

Published 2:55 am Friday, September 19, 2003

By By JOHN EBY / Cassopolis Vigilant
CASSOPOLIS -- Embalming techniques developed during the Civil War helped develop the modern funeral industry.
Thomas Holmes, the father of American embalming, spent four years trying to develop an arterial antiseptic solution to replace early cancer-causing compounds.
Holmes even tried milk.
Lincoln contacted Holmes for an embalming and funeral.
Holmes was dispatched from New York to Washington, a trip of several days. Col. Ellsworth became the first civilian viewed in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln wrote that his appearance was as natural as though he was asleep. Her account was repeated widely.
Holmes, who had a criminal record, made up for his lack of background by being in the right place at the right time. "Sometimes behind every great man there are a lot of people who got stepped on along the way," Yazel said.
Officers were charged $50 and $25 for enlisted men. As the war went on and demand grew, the costs became $80 and $30, respectively. Holmes claimed to have personally embalmed 4,028 soldiers by the end of 1863, and Lincoln after he was assassinated, but Yazel said that cannot be substantiated. He was a "P.T. Barnum of sorts."
Notification often consisted of a message to come to the rail station to pick up a package.
Cooling boards and ice preservers were commonly used prior to arterial embalming becoming widely used because of fear of cancer-causing chemicals.
In colonial America people lived in small, densely-populated communities with a "communal lifestyle. They saw to each other's needs for food and shelter. They cared for one another when they were sick and they were really surviving some pretty harsh elements," Yazel said.
Colonists shunned coffins for the simple reason that "there was no reason in their mind that they needed to waste wood they used to cook, to build shelters and sometimes to protect themselves. Though an abundant commodity, it had to cut and hewn and there wasn't time for that. The other reason they didn't use caskets was because the colonists got away from the imperial way of doing things in Europe."
Skilled tradesmen known as "barber surgeons" prepared and dressed the deceased for their last ride to a church for funerals.
Midwives sprang from those colonial attitudes. "As a natural progression," Yazel said, "when someone passed away, the midwife was the person who bathed the body, dressed the body and placed it on a reposing couch if the house was that nice, or perhaps in the one room everyone was at. They would shroud the body and bury it immediately. In actuality, even though my profession has been male-dominated, the first real funeral directors in America were women. They went door to door and invited people to come to funerals. Women took the lead in making that happen. That trend continued for the most part until the War of 1812."
When peace replaced turmoil from that conflict, America resumed its push west to explore undiscovered expanses.
Another early example of coffins being made on demand occurred at Jacob Knorr Undertaking in Germantown, Pa., considered one of the nation's oldest continuously-operating funeral homes. Records date back to 1761.
Andrew Gardner was another cabinetmaker who began making coffins as an undertaker in Vincennes, Ind. He opened in 1816 -- the same year Indiana gained statehood. It is also still in business.
Westward expansion prodded innovations in transporting bodies back east for burial. Wagon companies, and later railways, began to require that deceased soldiers be shipped in tightly sealed coffins.
Furnishing undertakers accomplished two tasks. Casket inventories developed, rather than calling cabinetmakers at midnight. They also created a division of labor. He was not the same person who took care of the body.
Yazel shared the story of why we having "living rooms" instead of "parlors." Edward Bock, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, during an influenza epidemic when people were laid out in front rooms, "was disgusted with the fact that room was associated mostly with death. He coined the phrase, 'Living room,' for the formal front room of the house where you received guests and entertained. It stuck and we don't call it the parlor anymore."
In 1848, Almond Fisk created a metallic burial case with a viewing "porthole." These burial cases were one of the major innovations in preservation that eventually led to embalming and funeral services as we know them today.
The 1853 "Mummy Case" resembled King Tut's sarcophagus. "The real innovation was once the casket was shut, he could pull all the air out and create a vacuum," Yazel noted. "That greatly increased preservation. I haven't seen a Fisk Metallic Burial Case in Michigan yet, but there's one at my alma mater in Cincinnati. They're often referred to in the profession as an 'iron torpedo.' They were covered in black crepe and some of them had tassels if you wanted deluxe models, and they had these ghastly portholes to view the deceased. I'm not sure they were any better viewing in the iron torpedo than they were not viewing at all."
Another 1850s development was grave robbery for medical school dissection. Burial vaults started to prevent robberies and are required by cemeteries rather than law.