August 13, 2012 10:07 am
In 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater, no one expected that one of the longest lasting effects of that day to be a boom in the funeral industry. The blog Providentia explains how it happened.
Lincoln’s body had to make the trip from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois for burial. Along the way, millions of mourners would see his corpse at planned stops along the route. The nation wanted to mourn their dead president, and they wanted to see his body. But keeping a corpse presentable for that long wasn’t exactly common practice at the time.
This is where Thomas Holmes, a surgeon who is now known as the “father of American embalming,” comes in. Holmes was fascinated with embalming, but he thought that the standard American way of doing it – with harsh chemicals like arsenic and mercury – were too toxic and dangerous to medical students. In Europe, they were experimenting with something called “arterial embalming,” flushing out the blood and filling the arteries with a preservative like alcohol.
When the Civil War broke out, Holmes had plenty of bodies on which to test this arterial embalming idea. During the fighting the bodies were generally buried at the battle field, but families often wanted their sons sent home for a proper burial. Providentia explains:
Setting up battlefield embalming stations, Dr. Holmes trained numerous embalmers in his new technique and a new profession, the “embalming surgeon” quickly sprang up. It is hard to say how many corpses Dr. Holmes and his assistants prepared for shipping, (he later claimed to have personally embalmed more than 4,000 bodies but this is probably an exaggeration). The demand for embalming services became so great that some unscrupulous embalmers actually competed for corpses on the battlefield (the army offered an $80.00 fee for the embalmed body of an officer and $30.00 for a soldier). By 1865, the problem had become so bad that the War Department put out General Order 39 to ensure that only properly licensed embalmers would be allowed to offer services to the families of the war dead. Once the war was over, Dr. Holmes` numerous trained assistants returned home and put their skills to good use.
So, fast forward again to the assassination. Mary Todd Lincoln had seen Holmes’s work on the soldiers during the war, and asked for him personally to handle her husband’s body. Now, at the time, there wasn’t a funerary trade like there is today. Embalming was generally done by the undertaker and bodies that weren’t embalmed weren’t exactly open casket material. But after Lincoln’s body made its farewell tour, Holmes’s techniques sparked a country-wide trend in embalming. Whereas before people buried bodies as quickly as possible before they could decay, funerals and wakes became events; things for people to gather at and view their deceased loved ones. Providentia sums up:
While not as well known as other scientific pioneers, Dr. Thomas Holmes helped launch the funeral industry and, in turn, helped change attitudes concerning death. He may have also created one of the first industrial hazards of the modern era considering the popularity of his arsenic-based embalming fluid. As embalming became increasingly affordable and popular, the demand for embalming fluid and its principal ingredient, arsenic, meant a steady rise in arsenic contamination of local water supplies as decaying coffins (whether made of wood or metal) allowed embalmed remains to leak into the groundwater.
For Dr. Holmes, death was both his trade and legacy, in more ways than one. But for millions of Americans who got to see Lincoln and their own family members after their deaths, perhaps it was worth it.
More at Smithsonian.com:
Unexpected Considerations for the Home Funeral
The Funeral Parade for the Last Veteran of the War of 1812
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.