We Masked Death's Smell With Candles. Then Lincoln Died

Brian Walsh argues we switched to embalming because of the late president
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 11, 2017 10:33 AM CST
Give Credit to Lincoln for What Happens to You After Death
Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.   (Wikimedia Commons)

Abraham Lincoln is famous for many things, and in a piece for the Conversation, Elon University assistant professor Brian Walsh argues the 16th president's list of accomplishments should be longer by one. He writes that America's embrace of embalming our dead should be credited in part to Lincoln. In a piece rich with historic details, Walsh explains that the way Americans were treated after death pre-Civil War—the body slowly decomposing on a bed, ringed in candles to help mask the smell as friends and family came to say goodbye—became problematic with the onset of the war. Wealthy Northerners could afford to pay to transport their fallen husbands and sons home, but the bodies couldn't withstand the journey. "Opportunistic Americans" saw an opening.

Using a variation of a technique publicized in the late 1830s by a Frenchman, these embalmers drained the blood of an estimated 40,000 soldiers and replaced it with arsenic and mercury. But the leap from the battlefields to our homes happened because of Lincoln, Walsh argues. Lincoln not only had his 11-year-old son Willie embalmed after his 1862 death, he himself was embalmed—and many Americans saw it first-hand. A train transported Lincoln to Springfield, Ill., over the course of three weeks, and his body was displayed in an open casket at stops along the way. The embalmed body "became a national sensation," though the condition of it deteriorated to become less shockingly lifelike along the journey. Read Walsh's full piece for more, including one "potent caveat" of America's shift to embalming. (More embalmed body stories.)

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