Amer­i­can Civil War’s many ca­su­al­ties helped to bring about the birth of mod­ern fu­neral ser­vice

Record Observer - - Senior Satellite - By RYAN HELFEN­BEIN

The Civil War truly re­de­fined what we call Amer­ica to­day. It in­tro­duced to us can open­ers, left and right shoes and the even the word “skedad­dle.” In ad­di­tion, we found the Civil War giv­ing birth to the hol­i­day marked as the start of sum­mer to some, but a day of re­mem­brance to all — Me­mo­rial Day. To each the Civil War im­pacted Amer­ica dif­fer­ently, but to an un­der­taker it gave birth to mod­ern day fu­neral ser­vice.

Of all the his­tory writ­ten re­gard­ing the Civil War, very lit­tle has been writ­ten about the un­der­tak­ers without whom the war could have been an even greater hor­ror than it was. Prior to the war, meth­ods of “say­ing good­bye” to those that passed con­sisted of ice cool­ing or air tight re­cep­ta­cles with a glass win­dow to view the face of the re­cently de­parted. If any means of preser­va­tion was done, it was pri­mar­ily for san­i­ta­tion, spec­i­men preser­va­tion and med­i­cal stud­ies, not for the use of what we would re­fer to as a visi­ta­tion. The early role of an un­der­taker was sim­ply a per­son who would trans­port a de­ceased, pre­pare the body for burial and in­ter­act with the fam­ily for cer­e­mo­nial prepa­ra­tions. Dur­ing the war, a ma­jor­ity of the sol­diers who were killed in bat­tle were im­me­di­ately buried. With the lack of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, mostly due to the enemy re­mov­ing all valu­ables from the de­ceased, it was of­ten times im­pos­si­ble to prop­erly iden­tify the fallen for burial. Nearly half of the sol­diers were placed in graves marked un­known. There were no metal cas­kets pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment like we see to­day. Rather, a wooden cof­fin had to be crafted by, who else, but the un­der­taker – and it was dif­fi­cult to build them in a timely fash­ion with so many causal­i­ties oc­cur­ring dur­ing the war. The un­der­taker of that time needed a change, and it was Thomas Holmes who in­tro­duced to the in­dus­try that very trans­for­ma­tion. Holmes cre­ated a process which would evolve into the mod­ern art of preser­va­tion. He had de­vel­oped a safe em­balm­ing so­lu­tion, without poi­sons, that was sold to the Civil War em­balmers to help pre­serve the fallen vet­er­ans so that a proper burial could be per­formed in their home town, open to fam­ily and close friends to say good bye to their loved one. The process of chem­i­cal in­jec­tion was per­formed by men with med­i­cal train­ing who part­nered with the un­der­tak­ers to per­form em­balm­ing tech­niques. Nearly a decade af­ter the war, this process of preser­va­tion mor­phed into a one per­son job – that of the un­der­taker.

It was in 1861 that the in­dus­try gained head­line news with this new method of preser­va­tion with the loss of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth. Dur­ing the view­ing time, with many sen­a­tors and cab­i­net mem­bers pass­ing by his body in re­pose, it was Mrs. Lin­coln’s re­marks that cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the Washington news­pa­pers. She had stated that Col. Ellsworth’s face looked as nat­u­ral as if he were to be sleep­ing. A year later she would then per­haps share the same re­sponse as she had to lay to rest her own son and, in 1865, her hus­band, the great Abra­ham Lin­coln, who were both em­balmed.

With this new pro­ce­dure of car­ing for the de­ceased be­com­ing more pop­u­lar, it opened the door for fed­eral reg­u­la­tions. In 1865, just one month prior to the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Lin­coln, the War De­part­ment is­sued a gen­eral or­der en­ti­tled “Or­der Con­cern­ing Em­balmers.” This gave birth to the li­cense re­quire­ment, which is still manda­tory to­day in most states to em­balm and trans­port the de­ceased. It rep­re­sented the first ma­jor ef­fort in the United States to de­fine pro­fes­sional re­quire­ments for un­der­tak­ers.

Not only have the skills re­quired to be an un­der­taker changed quite a bit since the Civil War, but the ter­mi­nol­ogy of this role has as well. The term Un­der­taker was re­placed with Mor­ti­cian in the early 1900s due to it sound­ing less gloomy – even though the Latin root of ‘mort’ means Death.

The Civil War in gen­eral has ef­fected many things in our daily life to­day. From am­bu­lance ser­vices, ID tags to the for­ma­tion of na­tional ceme­ter­ies all be­ing de­rived from the Civil War. But the un­der­tak­ers of to­day ul­ti­mately view the Civil War as be­ing the birth of mod­ern day un­der­tak­ing we have come to know as Fu­neral Ser­vice.

RYAN HELFEN­BEIN

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