Misperceptions abound about many funeral-related practices in the United States. Among the areas associated with funerals with which people have misconceptions is embalming. Many people have a basic understanding about embalming. Nevertheless, they don’t have an accurate understanding of what modern day embalming really accomplishes. Additionally, most people have no idea about how and when embalming became widely practiced in the United States. With that in mind, the death of a U.S. President was an important step towards the wide practice of embalming in the United States.

The Civil War and the Rise of Embalming

Prior to the Civil War in the United States, embalming or steps to preserve the remains of a deceased individual were rarely taken in the country. Embalming or steps towards long-term body preparation were not practiced in the United States prior to the 1860s despite the fact that these processes had been employed by societies and civilizations for centuries.

The stark reality was that before the Civil War in the U.S.A. when a person died, and even if a viewing was to occur, the remains were merely laid out without the benefit of any type of preservative action to slow the course of decomposition. As a consequence, funerals and burials tended to be held within a short period of time. 

The human decomposition process starts immediately upon death. With that said, under typical circumstances, left unpreserved in any manner, sure signs of decomposition begin to appear within about 48 hours. This includes discoloration and bloating of the remains together with the emission of foul odors. 

As an aside, the presence of flowers at viewings and funeral services prior to the widespread use of embalming served not only to honor the day but a practical purpose as well. The placement of flowers around the remains of a deceased individual aided (at least somewhat) in the masking of odors associated with human decomposition.

The Civil War presented a unique challenge when it came to tending to the remains of deceased people. The Civil Wat resulted in huge numbers of casualties on both sides of the conflict. Because of the significant number of people being killed in the Civil War (primarily young men away from their families), a methodology needed to be developed to permit the availability of time to gather bodies and have them transported back to their homes. 

Modern embalming techniques had been developed just prior to the start of the Civil War through the efforts of men in England. During the Civil War, these techniques were brought to the U.S. and put into use by both sides in the conflict. After its widespread use to tend to dead soldiers, embalming became more broadly used throughout the country and remains a very common practice in the United States today.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: A Nation in Extended Mourning

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, in office for just over four years, assassinated about a month after he was inaugurated for a second term. He was assassinated after the Civil War had all but ended, but about a month before peace formally was concluded between the states. 

The death of President Lincoln resulted in an extended period of national mourning. This included a slow funeral cortege by train from the nation’s capital to what would be the President’s final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. The entire mourning process, including funeral services in Washington, D.C., and other cities between the capital and Springfield, lasted three weeks. The President died on April 14 and was finally buried in Springfield on May 4, in 1865.

As a result of the prolonged period of mourning, as well as the multiple funeral services planned for the three-week period, the decision was made to adopt the practice of embalming that was widely used to preserve the remains of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed in the battles of the Civil War.

As was the case with all aspects of the President’s funeral procession and related activities, information about the embalming of President Lincoln was widely reported and in fairly significant detail. While some people had become aware of the embalming process during the Civil War itself, the death of Lincoln proved to be a major educational moment for the American people when it came to the matter of embalming. The embalming of President Lincoln can be fairly cited as a primary reason why embalming was to become a common practice after death in the United States. 

Embalming After the 19th Century

Beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, through the 20th century, a considerable (some might say vast) majority of people who died in the United States were embalmed and buried or otherwise entombed (in a mausoleum, for example). Embalming and burial or entombment remained the standard practice into the 1980s. 

Beginning in the late 1980s, a growing number of people in the United States began to take an interest in cremation. As the 20th century drew to a close, some religions that had prohibited cremation openly permitted adherents to select embalming as a means to the disposition of mortal remains. (The largest religion that finally permitted cremation was the Catholic Church.)

The cremation rate in the United States by the end of the 1980s was about 10 percent. By 2018, the cremation rate in the country was just over 53 percent. 

If a direct cremation occurs, the remains are not embalmed. A direct cremation is one in which remains are taken directly to a crematorium for disposition after death. Embalming does not occur.

Not all cremations are direct, however. A significant percentage of people want to have funerals before their mortal remains are cremated. This includes open casket funerals and viewings. Thus, remains of individuals that desire a funeral usually are embalmed. 

In addition, a slightly increasing number of deceased individuals are directly buried following death, a process that forgoes embalming as well. Green burial practices are gradually gaining in popularity, avoiding standard embalming practices.