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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Embalming in the Civil War

By Jon Austin


The Civil War in America, 1861-1865, resulted in casualties that were unprecedented in the history of warfare.  The total number of victims who died either as a direct result of battle or from disease and illness has not been equaled nearly one hundred fifty years later.  The bodies of those who died either on the battlefield or in military hospitals were generally buried quickly and near the place of death in an effort to avoid the unpleasant condition of the decomposition and decay that was inevitable.  Unlike the animal kingdom, humankind affords the dignity of a ritualistic disposition of the Dead to fellow humans, which for the time period in the Judeo-Christian world translated to burial in the Earth.  Surviving family members and friends accepted the impracticality of viewing the body of a loved one who had died and had been buried on a distant battlefield; however, they longed to have the soldier’s body located and returned to their community for burial among other family members.

A technique to disinfect the remains and to offer the living some hope that a loved one would be preserved following death was introduced to the American medical community in 1840 through a translated French text authored by Jean Nicholas Gannal.  While doctors adopted embalming as a means of preserving remains for anatomical study, undertakers generally did not adopt it.  Families whom they served were comfortable burying the dead within twenty-four hours in order to avoid the unpleasantness of decay.

The advent of War offered a practical application for embalming.  A soldier’s body could be sanitized at the place of death, and it could be shipped home where it could be viewed safely weeks or months later without decay.  Nearly 40,000 cases are believed to have been treated during the War, including the body of Abraham Lincoln, but despite proof of its effectiveness, embalming fell out of use as soon as the War ended.  It would take nearly another fifteen years to be rediscovered by the young and developing funeral profession, which readily embraced and actively advocated its use as modern medicine and bacteriology became known.

During the War, a small number of doctors—familiar with the technique of embalming as well as human physiology and chemistry—established themselves as “embalming surgeons” to perform their services on the battlefield as well as offer the services of locating soldiers’ bodies, disinterring remains, treating them, supplying a coffin,  and shipping the body home for burial.

Copyright 2009 Jon Austin  All rights reserved.
From: civilwarembalmer.com

Jon Austin, a full-time museum professional since 1987, portrays embalming surgeon Dr. Benjamin F. Lyford.  Since 2000, he has studied the subject, becoming an authority on the history of American funeral service.  He has appeared on MSNBC, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, National Geographic Explorer, WGN-TV Chicago, National Public Radio, and local public television stations.  He has appeared in USA Today, the New York Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Chicago Tribune.  He presents first-person, period demonstrations to schools, community groups, and historical organizations appropriate for many age levels.  More information and a fee schedule may be obtained by contacting him via e-mail at museum3@msn.com.

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