Embalming is the act of preserving a body. Throughout history different cultures have practiced this art using various techniques and methods. In the United States the first embalming methods began in the early 19th century at medical schools. A body that was not preserved would deteriorate quickly, making it difficult for a student to study the soft tissues on the human cadaver. In 1846, Dr. Ellerslie Wallace, a demonstrator in anatomy at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, developed a zinc chloride-based compound for the preservation of dead flesh. Many of these early embalming compounds contained deadly poisons such as arsenic.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), soldiers that had died and had been identified were usually embalmed for shipment back home. The most famous doctor of this time was Thomas H. Holmes. Dr. Holmes is considered to be “the father of modern embalming”. By the wars, end in 1865, he boasted of personally embalming 4,028 men. Dr Holmes also discovered and promoted safer embalming fluids.
After the Civil War embalming, became widely recognized by the growing funeral industry. It gave this fledgling industry a sense of professionalism. At the Funeral Directors National Association of the United States annual, meeting in 1882, it was decided to replace the name undertaker with funeral director because of its more pleasing and professional connotations. That same year Dr. C.M. Lukins at Pulte Medical College in Cincinnati, Ohio established the Cincinnati School of Embalming, the first such school in the United States. By the late 19th century, there was a large-scale acceptance of embalming as a way to sanitize and disinfect the body. It also enabled the family to have extended wakes and gave the funeral director additional skills in cosmetic and reconstructive practices which enabled the deceased to look natural and in a state of slumber. Large scale companies spring up at this time, supplying the growing trade. They produce safer and different concentrations of embalming fluids for various cases. By 1906, most states had done away with arsenic compounds in embalming fluids and many were using formaldehyde and other chemicals. By 1910, the funeral industry had established itself as a professional and needed trade in society. It changed societies views and attitudes towards death. The large-scale use of funeral homes or funeral parlors changed the connotation of the word parlor as a room in the house. No longer would a parlor in a persons home be associated with a wake, death or mourning, but it could now be a room for the living or “living room”.
Essentially there are two ways to embalm a body. The first is viscerally, where the fluids are pumped into the body cavities. The second is arterially, where the fluids are pumped into the arteries. The age and condition of the body will dictate which method to use. The embalming bottles have graduations on the side. Most are one-ounce graduations with one bottle containing on the average 16 ounces. The embalming fluids are diluted with water, usually eight ounces to the gallon. On the average three to four gallons are needed to embalm a body. Larger bottles that contain as many as 56 ounces were sometimes used as mixing bottles for the concentrated fluids in the smaller 16-ounce bottles. Larger bottles with large open mouths were usually used as Aspirating bottles. These bottles were used to drain the body fluids into them. Many bottles can also be used for different purposes.
Again some of the fluids would be specific for visceral embalming, while others were used solely for arterial embalming. At the turn of the century, other compounds were developed to help in the embalming process. Preinjection fluids were used to help open up arteries so the embalming fluid could flow more freely. These preinjection fluids may go by different company trade names such as “pretextone” from the Champion Company, “Calsec” from the ESCO, Embalmers Supply Company or “Hemosol” from Undertakers Supply Company. Other fluids were meant to be mixed with the embalming fluid to give a better embalming mixture. This was true when formaldehyde was used. Because formaldehyde had a tendency to dehydrate the body, other chemicals were added to the mixture to stop that process. The color of the fluids would vary from company to company. Some colors were due to chemical contents while others were from the fluids being perfumed. Beside dehydration qualities, formaldehyde also had a pungent odor, and embalming companies masked the smell with heavily perfumed fluids.
Several companies produced a wide range of embalming fluids and supplies for the funeral industry. Many of these companies are still in business today. National Casket Company was formed in August of 1890. By 1897 the company had opened a sales office in Philadelphia and by 1899 had purchased several factories in the south and Middle West to strengthen the companies geographic position. By 1929, the company had twenty-eight sales offices around the Unites States and fifteen factories and 250 workers. They covered a broad geographic area, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Rocky Mountains. Embalming fluids were just one of the many items made and marketed for the funeral industry. Their embalming bottles often contain an embossed image of the U.S. Capitol Building, A flag and eagle. The bottles are a variety of sizes, from the small 16-ounce bottles, to larger 56 ounce small mouth fluid bottles or large mouth aspirating bottles.
Other companies include Dodge Chemical Company, which is still in business and still supplies the funeral industry. The Undertakers Supply Company which was located in Chicago, Ill. This company produced an assortment of items for the funeral industry and printed a magazine titled “The Professional Embalmer”, “We are in the Service of Others”. The Champion Company had its central office in Springfield, Ohio, but also had offices in the mid west, east coast, west coast and Canada. The company produced several types of embalming fluids including “textone”, “Motobalm”, “Pretextone” and “Cavitone”. Their labels often depict a seated knight on the upper portion.
Embalming bottles are often classified under poison bottles, however they should be a classification all to themselves. One word of caution for those you have embalming bottles or have come across them. If the bottle contains residue or actually still has the fluids, never open or smell the bottle. The early bottles contained arsenic, which is a carcinogenic and can also be caustic. 19th century morticians often wore rubber gloves and aprons when working with these fluids. Even bottles dating into the 1950’s can also be a potential problem. Many had formaldehyde based compounds. This also is a carcinogenic and again any residue or fluid should not be sniffed. Today’s fluids use a variety of chemicals and may not have a large percentage of formaldehyde that was in use years ago.
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nformation for the following article came from:
Burns, Stanley M.D., Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, Twelvetrees Press, 1990.
Quigley, Christine, Modern Mummy: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century, McFarland & Company Inc. Jefferson, North Carolina, 1998.
The Embalmers Monthly Magazine, April 1931, August 1931, October 1931, December 1931, August 1932, Published by the Undertakers Supply Company, Chicago, Ill.
National Casket Company Metallic Casket Catalog Published by National Casket, 1929.
1907 Eckels Undertaker Directory of North America and British America, Published by Eckels Company, Arch street, Philadelphia.
Various embalming bottles from the authors collection