Thursday, January 29, 2015

Embalming and the Strange Case of President Andrew Johnson

     The practice of embalming only came into its own at the time of the American Civil War.  Thomas Holmes was a doctor in the Union army who had previously experimented with the process of embalming corpses. Early in the war, he embalmed a few Union officers killed in battle so that their remains could be shipped home for burial.  President Lincoln eventually sanctioned the procedure for all fallen soldiers, and during the course of the war Dr. Holmes embalmed some four thousand soldiers.  Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas. 

     The assassination and subsequent funeral of Abraham Lincoln brought the practice of embalming to the attention of a wider public.  President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865 but his body was not interred in Springfield, Illinois until May 4.  Lincoln’s body was put on a special funeral train and retraced the route Lincoln had traveled as the president-elect on his way to his first inauguration in Washington.  The passage of the body home for burial was made possible by embalming and brought the possibilities of embalming to the attention of a wider public.

     Despite its growing acceptance, by 1875 even some of the most famous in the land were not being embalmed after death.  Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, who was the first American president to be impeached, and who is widely regarded as one of the country’s worst presidents, was one such individual.  Johnson died on July 31, 1875.  His funeral took place on August 3, in Greenville, Tennessee.  The body decomposed rapidly in the summer heat, so the casket was kept closed.  In a folk story, often retold by funeral directors and florists, the resourceful undertaker piled heaps of flowers on the casket to mask the odor of the body.

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