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