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The History of the Funeral

March 22, 2019

 

Every culture has its own customs and traditions when it comes to the end of life.  One Nordic funeral tradition was to construct a boat and send the deceased on one last voyage into the Fjord.  I think everyone is familiar with the Egyptian funeral practices, or at least Hollywood’s take on the subject.  Although I will admit that the funeral procession scene in the Godfather was sublime. 

In our current culture, we of course have our own traditions that have developed over time.  Most everyone in the United States has been to a traditional funeral lay-out where the deceased is displayed in a coffin showered in soft, pink light.  This type of funeral takes place several days after the person has died in order to allow friends and family to attend.  There is a lot of planning and work required in order to display a human body that has been deceased for this amount of time.  The practice of embalming preserves the body and temporarily prevents decomposition.  Without embalming funerals as we have come to know them, would not be possible.  Before embalming became popular, or even possible, funerals had to take to place within a day or two of the person’s death.  As with so many aspects of our modern life, the origin of this practice can be traced to the American Civil War.   

The War between the States changed the very fabric of our society.  Slavery was abolished, over 600,000 soldiers were killed, the railroad and the telegraph both came of age.  Numerous industries previously unknown or under-development experienced explosive growth during the War.  The funeral industry was one such business. 

 

Before the war, a normal funeral in the United States would often consist of placing the deceased in an open pine box that was displayed in a private home.  Without embalming, the human body starts to decay within minutes of death.  As a result, the funeral and burial had to take place as soon as possible.  During the Civil War, millions of soldiers were shipped to the battlefield via railroad and riverboat. For the common enlisted soldier, there was often no funeral at all.  Numerous individual battles resulted in thousands of dead bodies strewn across rural corn fields and peach orchards.  Often the only solution was to bury them on the spot in mass graves or individual plots, depending on the availability of labor and shovels.

 

Rudimentary embalming procedures had been developed by several physicians in the mid-19th Century, but it was the death of one particular Union officer that launched the practice of embalming and ignited the funeral industry.  Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth was the very epitome of panache.  At 24 years of age, Ellsworth had raised a regiment of volunteer soldiers in New York.  Made up mostly of firemen, Ellsworth personally trained the men he would go on to command, if only for a brief moment.  He even designed their uniforms, mimicking the outfits worn by a particularly fierce band of French soldiers fighting in North Africa at the time.

 

Ellsworth and his men were in Washington D.C. the day that Virginia voted to secede from the Union.  South Carolina had seceded in December of 1860 and a number of other southern states had followed suite.  The Confederacy was already up and running before Lincoln even arrived in Washington D.C.  In fact, Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy before Lincoln was sworn in!  The secession of Virginia in May of 1861 changed the game completely.  Virginia not only had more people and wealth than any other state in Confederacy, it bordered Washington D.C.  The land on which D.C. is situated was partially taken from Virginia.  The concept of Virginia quickly raising a small army and taking the White House was a very real possibility.  At the start of the War, the United States Army had less than 20,000 men in Uniform, nearly all of which were busy out West taking land from the Native Americans.  The Nation’s Capital was relatively undefended. 

 

Colonel Ellsworth was not one to miss a war.  Alexandria, Virginia was only 10 miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  It was so close that a person could actually see a confederate flag waiving on top of a popular Tavern with the aid of a looking glass.  The day after Virginia seceded, Ellsworth lead his men into Virginia and occupied Alexandria.  The Colonel personally went to the top of the Tavern and removed the large Confederate banner.  While walking back down with the stairs with his spoils of War, Ellsworth was confronted by the owner of the Tavern, who was brandishing a shotgun.  A close-range blast killed the Colonel instantly.  He was the first Union Officer killed in the Civil War.  The newspapers reported the sensational story and made Colonel Ellsworth an instant martyr.  The story ran all over the Country and for good reason.  Before he was in the Army, Elmer Ellsworth was a close, personal friend of Abraham Lincoln.  As a young man, Ellsworth worked for Lincoln as a law clerk in Springfield, Illinois.  He even accompanied the President-elect to Washington, D.C. before moving up to New York.

 

Seeing opportunity is one thing, seizing it is quite another.  A Dr. Thomas Holmes managed to get a meeting with the President immediately after Ellsworth was killed.  Dr. Holmes had been working on a rudimentary embalming procedure.  He agreed to do the procedure for free, and Lincoln assented. Colonel Ellsworth’s body laid in state in the White House for several days and was then paraded up to New York, where it was buried 10 days later.  This would have not been possible without embalming. 

Dr. Holmes received a contract from the Army and went on to embalm more than 4,000 soldiers during the War, nearly all of them officers.  While this proved to be a lucrative business, the good doctor likely made more money from his patented embalming fluid that he sold for $3.00 a gallon (Formaldehyde, although discovered, was not yet in production).   It is said that this same fluid was used 4 years later to embalm Colonel Ellsworth’s good friend, Abraham Lincoln.  After seeing Colonel Ellsworth’s funeral, Mary Todd Lincoln requested the same procedure be performed on her late husband.  The procedure developed by Dr. Holmes allowed thousands of Northern families to have a proper funeral, and for the entire Nation to pay its respects to our 16th President as his remains were transported from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.

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