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Friday, June 01, 2007

The Death of Abraham Lincoln -- and of the Traditional American Funeral

On a raw, wet afternoon back in early April, I marched with a crowd of other umbrella-shielded mourners behind a horse-drawn hearse that carried the casket of Abraham Lincoln down the main drag of Allentown, Pennsylvania, to the solemn beat of a lone drummer.

The casket was a mere (though exact) replica of the cloth-covered walnut case Abe was long buried in, the hearse clearly a prop. But with a troop of re-enactors outfitted in Civil War uniforms and the street fronted with antebellum manses, our modern funeral train caught the spirit of the very real processions that marched through some dozen Northern cities like this one almost exactly 142 years ago to the day, the date of Lincoln's assassination.

Our re-enactment noted the end of one great man's life (and of his era). Unbeknownst to most of my fellow mourners that afternoon, it also marked the anniversary of another kind of death altogether: that of the traditional American funeral.

Up to the time of Lincoln's funeral, deathcare was a primarily family affair. Women of the house typically washed and dressed the body of their deceased, laid it out in the front parlor, often in a wood coffin built by the local carpenter. Mourners came and went. Burial took place on the back forty or community cemetery, and the body was lowered into a simple, vaultless grave a family member may have dug himself.

Chemical embalming, as I explain more fully in Grave Matters, was considered an abuse of the body and thus limited to cadavers used for anatomical study. Resistance to the practice softened during the Civil War, however, because embalming helped preserve the remains of slain Union soldiers for the long rail ride North to their home parlors and family cemeteries.

The connection to Abraham Lincoln? Like many of those Northerners who died under his command, the body of Lincoln was embalmed following his assassination -- the first president to be so -- and loaded onto a funeral train for its long journey to the Springfield cemetery. The train followed a northerly route, taking nearly two weeks and stopping at select cities along the way.

At each one, Lincoln's casket was transported to a central location (via marches like the one in Allentown) and opened to public view. More than a million Americans in total would file past the body of the 16th president. Preserved to enough of a life-like appearance that mourners would reach out and touch it, Lincoln's body put a good face on embalming and, in the process, gave life to a new funerary practice.

Embalming became a mainstay of the American funeral, and, since only an embalmer/undertaker/and eventual funeral director could do it, a true funeral "industry" was born.

Note on the photograph of Lincoln's coffin. The Batesville Casket Company produced the original coffin for Lincoln's funeral the day following his assassination. The image above shows an exact replica, also created by Batesville. In addition to the cloth cover and walnut case, the coffin is lined with satin and silk and adorned with silver handles. In the upper left corner of the image here, at the brim of the soldier's hat, you can see a print of the only existing photograph of the real Lincoln lying in his coffin.

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Grave Matters

Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.