Thursday, October 3, 2013

Embalming Surgeons and Undertakers


"Rest on Embalmed and Sainted dead
Dear as the blood ye gave
The Herbage of your grave."
(Meig's Gate on Arlington Road, Arlington National Cemetery)

During the early part of the Civil War it was the Embalming Surgeons that performed the embalming procedure. Many of the men were military surgeons. However, there were also a large number of civilian surgeons that took up embalming and became embalming surgeons. They realized the monetary benefits to the profession and saw this as a way to increase there fortunes. Most of the embalming surgeons were honest men. There were many reports however, of many unscrupulous embalming surgeons out to take advantage of soldier and family alike. Toward the latter part of the War there were reports of a few undertakers beginning to embalm both at home and on the field of battle.

Of the tens upon tens of embalming surgeons practicing during the War years, very few are heard of following the War. It is then that the undertaker begins to see the potential and the obvious extension of embalming into the undertaking profession.

The embalming surgeon was a Northern phenomenon. To date there seems to be no documentation that there were Southern embalming surgeons. When one looks at the circumstances surrounding the onset of this new trade, one can understand why it was not until after the War that embalming moved into the South. Dr. Thomas Holmes, the "Father of Modern Embalming", was from New York, his protégées were all Northerners, the chemicals were developed, patented and manufactured in the North. During the beginning of the War, Washington was the center of all that happened with the military. The embalmers flocked to Washington until they became such a nuisance that they were run out of the city. From then on, those with the drive to either make money or help the troops and their families, moved nearer the battlefields or field hospitals.

The South had neither the knowledge nor the resources to enter into this new embalming trade. This is not to say that there may not have been an occasional Confederate soldier or officer embalmed by a Northern embalmer and sent home, but this was by no means a common occurrence.

Public Acceptance of Embalming
Even though the public was familiar with embalming, [soldiers being sent home embalmed and President Lincoln and other notables having been embalmed], the general public did not take to this new invasion of the body. There were many bodies embalmed after the Civil War, but it was not until the beginning of the Twentieth Century that embalming became an accepted practice. It was at first performed in the home by the undertaker. By the early to mid 1920s the funeral home as we know it was beginning to emerge.

IMAGE: Dr. Richard Burr, an embalming surgeon who worked in Frederick, MD, shown embalming a soldier recovered from the battlefield.  You can see the embalming pump in his right hand, and the tubing attached to it above the chest of the soldier’s body.  Embalming tables were not usually available in the field, so here he is using a door placed over two large barrels.

Visit to learn more about embalming in the Civil War.


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