Preserving a Nation: How embalming got its start in America

On May 24, 1861, Union Army Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth was shot and killed in Alexandria, Virginia, while trying to remove a Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House Hotel.  The unfortunate Ellsworth was also a lawyer who had a special relationship with the president of the United States.  He had clerked in Abraham Lincoln’s law office in Springfield, Illinois.  When he heard of the death, a distraught Lincoln asked the colonel’s regiment to bring his friend’s body to the White House for the funeral service.  By being so honored, the colonel was about to become part of a process that would alter the course of American mortuary history.

At this point, the Civil War was only a little more than a month old.  Washington was a frenzy of activity as thousands of military personnel as well as manufacturers, suppliers and professionals sought to call attention to themselves and their wares and services. These included undertakers and some embalmers.  Among them was Dr. Thomas Holmes, a coroner’s physician from New York who had been experimenting with a new arterial methods of embalming developed by the French.   To distinguish himself, Holmes offered to embalm Ellsworth for free and permission was granted.

At the time, embalming was a relative rarity in the United States as well as a work much in progress.  In any event, the colonel was embalmed and lay in state displayed in a casket with his face and chest visible through a glass plate. Notable politicians and military men paid their respects.  Mary Todd Lincoln said he appeared to be sleeping.  Abraham Lincoln was impressed.

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Tags: burial, death, embalming, history

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