Article Category: Funereal Friday

The Complete Embalmer

Posted Friday, Jun 26

And the Story of Thomas Holmes, MD

The embalming craze took off when an Army Medical Corps colonel (and close friend of President Lincoln) became the first Union officer to be killed. On May 24, 1861, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was shot while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a Virginian hotel. The flag was so large that it could be seen from the White House.

News of the shooting traveled quickly to Washington. Thomas Holmes—later known as the “Father of Modern Embalming—offered his services to Ellsworth’s family, and the captain’s preserved body was taken to the White House, where it lay in state for several days. 

Dr. Holmes was given a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers in order that they might be sent home for burial. Holmes is said to have embalmed as many as 4,000 bodies himself, but he also created a fluid that could be used for embalming and sold it to other physicians for $3 per gallon. (At that time, the chemicals were a mixture of arsenic, zinc and mercuric chlorides, creosote, turpentine and alcohol. Formaldehyde, which soon became the primary ingredient, was not discovered until after the war.)

With the end of the Civil War, the practice of embalming died out for a time since people were likely to die near home and could be buried more quickly. Embalming surgeons became a thing of the past, and when interest in embalming returned again in the 1890s, undertakers began to perform these duties. Companies that wanted to sell embalming fluid sent salesmen around the country to demonstrate the process and provide certificates of training, and the practice grew. (State licensing finally entered the picture in the 1930s.)

Other Recent Articles

Issue 38 Available for Pre-Order!

Issue 38 Available for Pre-Order!

Featuring our exclusive article with the staff from Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home on the tragedy at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, Southern Calls Issue 38 brings you the details from a funeral director's perspective. And, as always, our December issue of Southern...

read more
Issue 37 Available Now!

Issue 37 Available Now!

What a unique collection of articles we have put together for our September issue -- read about the extraordinary details of the life and death of the world famous P.T. Barnum and his friend and performer General Tom Thumb, with lots of interesting facts and images...

read more
Jim Kurtz

Jim Kurtz

We probably have never met, but you may have seen me before. I was that little guy watching funerals from the steps of the Catholic school across the street from Galloway & Sons Funeral Home in Beeville, Texas. I especially loved seeing the big cars that led the...

read more
Bibber Memorial Chapel

Bibber Memorial Chapel

The air smells briny and gulls caw overhead. In the distance, against the backdrop of an iron-colored horizon, a few hearty lobstermen trawl the sea, braving the frigid temperatures. It’s snowing again, but that’s not newsworthy. It’s winter in Maine. Three miles up...

read more
Rhonda Keyes Pleasants

Rhonda Keyes Pleasants

Before reading any further, pause for a moment and reflect on your career, regardless of your age or your job title. Reminisce about opportunities that were afforded to you, both past and present. Consider equally decisions you made with the excitement of future...

read more
Issue 36 Available Now!

Issue 36 Available Now!

See the beauty and honor of the funeral profession reflected through a father’s eyes as he documents the passing of his beloved son – every funeral director should own this issue. Mitchell’s Journey is a moving tribute to unconditional love as a grieving family...

read more

Join Our Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter to periodically receive article updates, industry news, and details about new issues before they are released.

The Magazine