The American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865. This historical war brought forth many changes — the Confederacy was no more, slavery ended shortly after, and the way we take care of our dead began to look different.
In this blog, we’re going to look at how the Civil War impacted the funerals we see today.
Before the War
Prior to the Civil War, Americans were used to death. It was simply a fact of life, with an infant mortality rate of 200 per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy didn’t go further than a person’s late thirties.
Death was dealt with in the home and by the family. Family members did the dressing and preparation of the body and the body was displayed in the home parlor. Communities also had a group of women who helped lay the dead to rest.
Why Things Changed
During the Civil War, an estimated 620,000 men died, many of the deaths due to non-combat related disease. Families wanted their loved one shipped home in order to give them a proper farewell. The bodies would decompose by the time they were returned home, thus the practice of embalming began to emerge.
The death of President Lincoln was also another reason embalming became mainstream. When he was killed in 1865, his wife requested Lincoln to be embalmed. A funeral train carried his preserved body throughout the United States for people to see.
Soon after the war, undertakers began to emerge. Embalming required a certain set of skills which paved way for this profession. A shift happened where families no longer cared for their dead. Instead, the undertaker did it for them.
New Attitudes about Death
Though death was a large part of daily life prior to the war, attitudes about it began to shift. Never before had people seen death in such large quantities. Unlike other wars, this one was close to home. People could see war photographs, visit battlefields, or read about it in the newspaper.
It was surreal seeing men fighting their own, and it leading to such widespread and devastating consequences.
Today, it is still common practice that a funeral director takes care of our dead. In America, it is taboo for families to do it themselves. However, as different funeral trends emerge — green burials, at-home funerals — we are starting to see a shift towards pre-Civil War funeral practices.
Were you surprised to learn the popularity of embalming emerged from the Civil War? Share your thoughts in the comments below!