Embalming, Abraham Lincoln, and Exploding Caskets

Lincoln's Funeral Train. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Lincoln’s Funeral Train. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

By: Sara Knight
BU News Service

Frequently when researching an article I find really cool tidbits of information that don’t make it into the final draft, usually in the name of word count or for the righteous goal of avoiding tangents. So for my first BUNS Science blog post I wanted to relate some interesting historical information I came across while researching embalming for my natural burial op-ed.

When Abraham Lincoln comes up, most Americans probably think of his Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, stove-pipe hats, or even potential hazards of attending a theatre production. Unbeknownst to many, Lincoln also played a major role in popularizing the practice of embalming our dead.

It all began with a bang. Well, several bangs. “Exploding casket syndrome” was a macabre predicament facing train operators responsible for transporting Union cadavers from the bloody Southern battlefields back to their familial burial plots up North. In the hot summer months, the stacked caskets in the trains’ boxcars had a troubling tendency to explode from the build-up of microbial gases, a normal part of bodily decomposition.

Abraham Lincoln, along with many locomotive engineers and northern bereaved, was greatly troubled by exploding casket syndrome. He also happened to be a proponent of embalming – a practice many Americans viewed with disgust and disdain. At that time, it was decidedly un-Christian and indecently pagan to fiddle about with a corpse – even as a means of preservation.

Despite its unpopularity Lincoln advocated embalming, eventually putting the official POTUS seal of approval on the practice for all soldiers killed on Civil War battlefields.

Still, the practice probably would not have caught on as quickly if it had not been for Lincoln’s post-mortem request. He ordered his corpse embalmed and taken on a 1,654-mile railcar tour from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, IL, stopping at many towns in between to exhibit the wonders of bodily preservation. At that time, the average person could only hope to see paintings, drawings, or the odd fuzzy black-and-white photo of their Commander-in-chief, so the Lincoln body tour was quite the somber sensation.

Lincoln’s preserved remains drew thousands of mourners throughout the 180 city tour. Afterwards the practice of embalming was no longer popularly associated with paganism, but rather with the great American virtue of pragmatism and the great American man who held the Union together.

This historical research site has a detailed route of the Lincoln funeral train, map included.

Visit the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train site for more information about a planned recreation of the trip.

Dust to Dust: Considering Natural Burial

Your view
Your view
Photo courtesy of Flickr user knfk

By: Sara Knight
BU News Service

As far as we know, everyone dies. After you die your loved ones will most likely hand you off to a very professional-looking, somber stranger. This stranger will deal with your corporal remains either by the pickle-and-primp method or by crisping you in an oven that reaches up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Should the former method be chosen, your orifices will be padded with balls of cotton and sewn shut. While the blood drains from your body, the gloved and masked stranger will systematically pump you full of noxious preservatives. After your corpse is plumped full of these carcinogenic chemicals, you will be washed with poisonous fungicides and insecticides, dabbed with rouge, and stuffed into an outfit of your loved ones’ choosing.

Your body will be put into a polished metal and wood coffin and lowered deep underground into a secure, cement vault. The grounds around your vault will be regularly clipped, watered, and sprayed with pesticides. Or, if your loved ones went the “cleansing fire” route and chose cremation they will receive an urn full of what will be called your “ashes;” in actuality it is the pulverized gravel left over from your charred bones.

Embalming, the pickling method described above, coupled with the dressing, storage, funerary services, and burial can easily cost from $10,000 to $12,000, cremation $1,500 to $4,000. Both are not only costly, but ecologically harmful. Both are also entirely unnecessary.

Traditional burial and embalming require huge amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels and manufacture of toxic chemicals, an absurd testament to inefficiency. Embalming, though not legally required, often serves a purpose as a preservative to give far-flung family members time to travel to bid the body of their loved one farewell. However, embalming does not accomplish anything a good rest in a refrigerator could not.

Mark Harris, an environmental author and proponent of alternative burials, said that 75 percent of all caskets are made with metal. We put this highly durable box into a deep pit that is lined with concrete – a “vault.” Vaults were created to prevent cave-ins should the coffin begin to degrade. They also protected a loved one’s remains from skullduggery.

Harris puts the waste into perspective in his book Grave Matters: “A typical 10-acre swatch…contains enough coffin wood to construct 40 houses; nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel; 20,000 tons of vault concrete; and enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool.”

"Arlington Tree" courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer
“Arlington Tree” courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer

We are taking huge swathes of land and making them useless for all but social visits to carved hunks of stone. This manicured, pesticide-treated collection of somber rocks could be meadowland, forest, orchards, or even community parks; a place where mourners might go to be reminded of the cyclical nature of life.

Fortunately, those of us who are either ecologically conscious or simply wary of the grotesqueries and indignities our bodies are subject to at the hands of a funeral director can now opt for natural burial. In a natural burial, the untreated corpse is shrouded or encased in biodegradable materials (cardboard, linen, or sea grass) and shallowly buried in hopes of becoming mulch. This mulch will nourish the local flora, including any memorial seeds planted by the grieving family.

Would you rather visit your grandfather’s oak tree or a slab of stone with his name on it? And even if the figurative permanence of a gravestone appeals, natural burial does not preclude this option – you can stake your chosen memorial on the burial site. We have green alternatives to embalming, cremation, and traditional burial; it is now time to lay those old practices to rest.





Falling Fertility Rates

Amid a deep recession and a slow economic recovery, the fertility rate is below the replacement level of two-point-one percent. Withe the baby boomers reaching retirement, the aging of America will have consequences. BUTV’s Sandeep Chandrasekhar investigates in Boston.