Virginia Stem Owens

Dust or Ashes?

At the National Museum of Funeral History.

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We found the museum displays well lit, spaciously arranged, and obviously well-funded. Being a National Museum, the displays focus mostly on American funeral customs. In this country's early history, we followed the Western European custom of burial. Family members washed and prepared the body for burial, built the coffin, dug the grave, and, aided by a clergyman if one was available, committed the body to the earth. With the growth of more prosperous towns and cities, the distance to cemeteries was sometimes considerable, and horse-drawn hearses, of which the museum holds a number of examples, carried the casketed body. Some coffins were plain, others more ornate, In the colder climes where the ground froze hard, the body might be laid out in a "cooling room" till the spring thaw made grave-digging easier. In any case, corpses were not usually disemboweled or otherwise physically invaded during the antebellum period in America. Even in death, bodies maintained something of their integrity and sanctity.

This was true of slave burial as well. Suzanne Smith, in her book To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, discusses how slaves buried their dead after dark in "hush harbors," a practice brought from West Africa. When such funerals drew large crowds, of mourners, however, they were quelled, perceived by whites as occasions for plotting slave revolts.

As early as the late 18th century, black urban freedmen formed benevolent societies often modeled on the Masons, Knights of Pythias, and various immigrant associations. They provided a safety net to care for their sick, widows, and orphans, as well as insuring burials. This suited the white communities who preferred not to have people of color buried in their own churchyards.

But the Civil War brought changes to burial practices that eventually encompassed all of American society. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust reports how embalming became widespread when tens of thousands of dead soldiers littered battlefields, too many for the survivors to bury. Family members came with hopes of finding the remains of beloved sons and husbands only to discover them rotting in the fields.

Fortuitously, Dr. Thomas Holmes, a New York surgeon who had been experimenting with chemicals substitutes for the arsenic and mercury used to preserve cadavers for medical students, came up with a safer fluid to inject into the arteries of corpses to preserve them. He had found his niche—battlefield embalming. Thus preserved, bodies could be shipped home via train for their loved ones to bury. Holmes followed Northern armies from battle to battle, advertising his services. His flyers targeted "prudential soldiers" who were urged to purchase prepaid embalming insurance.

By the end of the war, embalming had become so accepted that Abraham Lincoln's body was thus preserved for its cross-country journey from Washington to Illinois, though according to local reports, it arrived somewhat the worse for wear. The funeral museum is faithful to this historical report. Its effigy of Lincoln in his black, cloth-covered coffin, decorated only by the intricate brass bosses lining the upper edge, shows him to be gray and shrunken.

The museum displays a replica of Holmes' battlefield embalming tent as well as a 19th-century coffin workshop. Next to these displays is a 1920s embalming room, complete with a newfangled electrical pump for injecting the liquid preservative into the arteries.

Though embalming substantially increased the cost of a funeral, it grew in popularity among all levels of society, both black and white. With this additional service, funerals thus became increasingly commercialized and quasi-medicalized. Trade organizations, citing health concerns, lobbied state governments to pass laws requiring embalming for any corpse not buried within 48 hours.

The 1960s desegregation laws did not change people's preference for funeral establishments. Both churches and funeral homes retained their black and white divisions. Ironically, however, as Smith points out, this kind of self-segregation, even to the grave, gave black funeral directors a secure market that their white counterparts were not eager to take over. In addition, the growing expense of funerals meant a rise in economic and social status for the occupation, which became known first as undertaker, then mortician, and finally funeral director. In black communities these men were often at the top of their communities' income scale, especially as African Americans continued to prefer burial over the cheaper option of cremation. From that position of security, funeral directors emerged in many places as leaders among their people.

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