Preserving history: Embalming in U.S.

The Mütter Museum's Anna Dhody with 1950s embalming instruments. "The Civil War was the catalyst," she says.
The Mütter Museum's Anna Dhody with 1950s embalming instruments. "The Civil War was the catalyst," she says. (EVI NUMEN / Mütter Museum)
Posted: October 31, 2013

When a soldier died on a Civil War battlefield, it was often a long way to the family burial ground.

If it was too long, and the weather was warm, well - perhaps the less said, the better.

Unless, of course, you are Anna Dhody, curator at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Just in time for Halloween, Dhody is speaking at the Wagner Free Institute of Science on Wednesday evening on a macabre subject: the history of embalming in the United States.

The practice of preserving the dead dates back at least to the ancient Egyptians, known for their skill in mummifying remains. But embalming did not really take off in this country until the Civil War, when large numbers of people died far from home, said Dhody, a physical forensic anthropologist by training.

"The Civil War," she said, "was the catalyst."

The preservative of choice, for at least the next few decades after that: arsenic.

Among other drawbacks, the poison made it tricky for investigators trying to rule out foul play, said Dhody, a consultant to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office and occasional adviser to the TV shows House and Bones.

In addition to being the subject of Dhody's talk, embalming practices are featured in a new permanent exhibit at the Mütter, titled "Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia."

One photograph depicts the embalming facility of a Dr. Bunnell near Fredericksburg, Va., whose sign proudly guaranteed that treated bodies would be "Free From Odor or Infection."

Visitors can learn about gangrene, an all-too-common consequence of battlefield wounds in the 1800s. An interactive video gives museumgoers the experience of having an arm amputated, minus the pain. And they are introduced to prominent 19th-century Philadelphia physician S. Weir Mitchell, credited with coining the phrase phantom limb syndrome - the mysterious sensation that an amputated limb is still attached.

When soldiers died, their bodies typically were taken home by rail car. If they started to decompose before reaching their destinations, they were taken off the train and buried, Dhody said.

Even as embalming grew popular, it was performed on just 40,000 of the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the war, due partly to the cost.

In addition to arsenic, embalmers used toxic substances such as mercury and turpentine. Embalming surgeons arrived soon after a battle's conclusion, setting up tents where they would pump preservatives into the arteries of cadavers, Dhody said.

It worked, in the sense that the bodies were preserved for a while from microbial decay. But there were potential long-term consequences, because caskets didn't last forever.

"These caskets decompose," Dhody said, "and unleash a fury of toxic chemicals."

Indeed, there is evidence that arsenic from old cemeteries has leached into groundwater, said John Konefes, retired director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

Today, the primary preservative used by embalmers is formaldehyde, said Tony Moore, director of funeral-service education at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa. He estimated that 25 percent to 30 percent of people in the United States opt for cremation, though some choose both: embalming for the viewing, followed by cremation.

Increasingly popular are "green burials" that use minimal chemicals, with the goal of returning bodies to the earth whence they came.

Though her goal is to inform, Dhody grants that her topic may appeal to some in late October because they are in the mood for the ghoulish.

Look no further than the Mütter's current motto:

"Disturbingly informative."

If You Go

"Preserving the Final Moment: A Brief History of Embalming in America"

Where: Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 W. Montgomery Ave.

When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Cost: Free. Suggested donation $8 to $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors

Advance registration advised:


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