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A Brief History of Modern Embalming

Although other cultures certainly practiced various forms of preserving their dead, it was the Ancient Egyptians who set the bar the highest and who are best known for their embalming techniques. Egyptian embalmers were priests of the highest rank and only they were allowed to handle the dead. The procedure was precise and ritualistic.

Modern Embalming

The practice of embalming rarely surfaced after the downfall of Egyptian society. Christians normally did nothing to preserve their dead. During times of war pains were taken to keep the corpse somewhat viable until it could be returned home to loved one. There are scattered incidents of embalming reported during the Middle Ages among wealthy knights who fell during the Crusades.

Jean Gannal (1791 - 1882) began as an apothecary's assistant and became the first to offer embalming to the French general public.

Alexander Butlerov (1817 - 1868) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818 - 1892) are credited with the discovery of formaldehyde.

The first embalming solutions were of an arsenic base. Representatives for embalming fluid companies would travel the country presenting one or two day how-to classes in the use of their product. For attending these classes and purchasing a quantity of fluid, an undertaker received a certificate as an embalmer. It wasn't until the 1930's that state licensing became almost universal.

People sometimes block out the staggering casualties of the American Civil War. Approximately 600,000 were killed. Most were buried where they fell or in mass graves established days after the battle. Officers, their wives and the children of the well-to-do were sometimes shipped home.

The Civil War embalmer experimented with a wide combination of arsenic, creosote, mercury, turpentine and various forms of alcohol. Formaldehyde had not yet been discovered until 1866. Three of the most famous embalmers of the Civil War were Dr. Thomas Holmes, Dr. George Duiguid and Dr. Richard Burr.

Turn of the Century Embalmer's Kit

Embalming surgeons and undertakers were not always the same person. At the start of the Civil War, chemical embalming by injection was performed by men with medical training, since they were familiar with the process, these were the Embalming surgeons. Undertakers had to perform the various tasks of removing, transporting and preparing the dead for funerals. The medical embalmers associated themselves with the undertakers and offered their special techniques for a fee. Embalming surgeons could also make money as regular army surgeons or a regular doctor while Undertakers found extra money by also being cabinet or coffin and furniture makers. In this way he could make his own coffins which typically sold from $4-7. Embalming became a thriving business during the War and they often set up ghastly advertisements in the major cities. If they were lucky enough to have a store front it was not uncommon for them to display the embalmed body of someone who had no family members to claim it. This did not go over well with the soldiers who found it very demoralizing to say the least. Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler ordered undertakers to cease this practice, at least around large military centers.

There were several cases of fraud and attempted extortian due to the lack of regulations governing undertakers at the time. One firm attempted to get a bill passed that would have given only that firm the right to embalm the Federal dead. Another bill was was introduced to Congress to authorize the creation of a corps of military undertakers for each division. Both bills failed to pass. Finally in March 1865 the War Department issued General Order Number 39, entitled "Order Concerning Embalmers." This regulated not only who could become an embalmer but the prices that would be charged. The War ended one month later and therefore had little effect on embalming services for battlefield casualities.

Civil War Embalming Surgeons

Dr. Thomas Holmes of New York

Considered the "Father of Modern Embalming" Dr. Holmes was a registered member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in NY and had graduated as a medical surgeon. While serving as a coroner Holmes was given ample oppurtunity to conduct his own experiments into developing embalming fluids. By the outbreak of the War he had developed a fluid free of poisons. It was sold to many surgeons, anatomists and undertakers throughout the country for $3 a gallon. It is said that Dr. Holmes embalmed some 4,000 bodies over the four year course of the War.

Drs. Sampson and George Diuguid of Lynchburg, Virginia

The Diuguid mortuary was originally established in 1817 by Sampson Diuguid and a man by the name of Winston. Little is known of Mr. Winston. Their business is the second oldest funeral home in the United States and the oldest in the South. It is still in operation today and was the only undertaking establishment in Lynchburg until the late 1860s.

During the Civil War, George A., Sampson's son, ran the family business. They were responsible for the burials and embalming of both military and civilian dead. From their workshop in Lynchburg they tended to over 3000 soldiers both Confederate and Union alike. George Diuguid was superb in keeping records of every burial or removal during the War. Each body was documented, listing name, place of death, date of burial, military unit, place of burial along with coffin and body measurements. These records would prove to be invaluable after the War when the Federal Government wished to removed the remains of 200 of the Union soldiers and place them in the national cemetery near Petersburg in 1866. These records also enabled the Lynchburg Confederate Memorial Association, a women's group, to mark each soldier's grave with its own headstone in the early twentieth century.

Dr. George Diuguid, Lynchburg, VABurial of the Dead

Dr. Richard Burr, Philadelphia

Dr. Burr was a general physician before the start of the Civil War. After realizing the profit to be made as an embalming surgeon he took up the cause and set to work. He served briefly with the 72nd PA Volunteer Infantry. Several sources testify that Burr was not the most reputable of undertakers. He was well noted for his price gouging and made a habit of selling and reselling the same grave marker for locally buried soldiers. There are also stories of him robbing the dead or dying as he scoured the battlefields. Despite this bad reputation, Dr. Burr is credited with designing the basic structure of modern arterial embalming in which the veins of the dead are filled with chemical preservatives in place of blood. As most victims bled to death, arterial embalming proved to be the path of least resistance. Burr injected the chemicals through an incisor in the armpit. It was fast, easy, left almost no marks on the body and by-passed the filling of the abdominal cavity altogether. With a pile of corpses to work on, speed was of the essence.

Dr. Richard Burr works on an unknown soldier.

The embalming surgeon played a less important role in the decade following the end of the Civil War. With their absence, the Undertakers soon took over the field. They quickly developed new practices and ideas to improve on the already much improved practice soon to be known as Mortuary Science. Embalming and Undertaking became a respected profession and its new practitioners were widely seen as men who had done their part for the war effort.

Did You Know?

* Funeral homes are forbidden by law from embalming your loved on without your permission. There are NO legal requirements for embalming except under extraordinary circumstances.

* If your funeral director balks at the idea of you not wanting your loved one to be embalmed, contact a Jewish funeral home. Jews are forbidden from having their corpses embalmed under normal circumstances.

* Embalming is mostly a North American practice in modern times. European corpses have the trendy "au naturel" look.

* There are more than 400 movies with the word "corpse" in their titles but only one with the word "embalming". It is a 1999 Japanese filmed titled "Enbamingu" which is Japanese for "embalming".

* Do you know the difference between a coffin, a casket and a sarcophagus? It's the shape! A coffin is wider at the shoulders, narrower at the head and feet. A casket is rectangular and a sarcophagus is more molded into the shape of the human body and often had a portrait of the deceased painted on the lid.

For more information visit National Museum of Funeral History