The Rise of Embalming

Embalming supplies. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, it was this desire to be close to the dead that ultimately helped usher bodies out of the home. Embalming—which advanced as a science around the same time as the Civil War—allowed for the corpses of men who had died on far-off battlefields to return home for some semblance of the Good Death. “Families sought to see their lost loved ones in as lifelike a state as possible,” Faust writes, “not just to be certain of their identity but also to bid them farewell.” And when it came to preserving some false spark of life, none of the available alternatives (the Staunton Transportation Case “portable refrigerator,” for example) could match embalming. In 1861, the preserved body of a Union colonel killed in Virginia was honored at the White House to great fanfare. (His embalmer went on to preserve more than 4,000 bodies and became a rich man.) And at the close of the war, the embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln traveled 1,700 miles from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, with many stops along the way for Americans to pay their respects. Around the turn of the century, undertakers would often bring their scalpels, tubes, needles, forceps, eye caps, and other supplies to the house of the deceased and perform the embalming there, sometimes with relatives watching.

But eventually embalming moved out of the home and into places of business—death, in general, was increasingly processed outside of any residence. Advances in science lowered the death rate and made hospitals the primary places of dying. An increasing number of people lived in urban areas and in small apartments, where large home funerals were difficult to host. And as the Victorian era passed, and cultural practices changed, the formal parlor was replaced with the more informal and aptly named living room.