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.