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Embalming Without Odor: 1864

Circa 1864. "Dr. Bunnell's embalming establishment in the field. Army of the James." Wet-plate glass negative, half of stereograph pair. View full size.

Circa 1864. "Dr. Bunnell's embalming establishment in the field. Army of the James." Wet-plate glass negative, half of stereograph pair. View full size.


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Never too late

The slogan "Free from Odor or Infection" probably refers to the very real 19th Century fear of family members catching something from the Loved One, who might have died from cholera, smallpox or typhus instead of war wounds. Formaldehyde sanitized the body in addition to preserving it for shipment.

Little Shop of Horrors

Imagine the scene in the spaces behind those blankets.

The morbidly curious part of me would love to take a tour of the place.

"Christian burial" is the point.

From :

"The embalmer would use any building or shed available. In the absence of a permanent structure he would pitch a tent. There were days when it was not uncommon for there to be more than 100 bodies waiting to be embalmed. As the "embalming surgeon" or "undertaker" contracted to prepare the body of the dead soldier, he would set up an embalming tent near the battlefield or hospital. There would be times when there might be tens upon tens of bodies waiting to be embalmed and prepared for shipment home. The cost would vary with each embalmer. For many families the cost was a hardship. However, having a Christian burial at home for their loved one was worth the sacrifices that had to be made. Of course, when the body arrived home there would be additional costs for the wake and service. It is well to remember that because of horrific battle conditions and general confusion, it was very difficult to located the remains of an officer and almost impossible to locate the remains of a common soldier. But still, the hopes of the family persisted. It became more and more common for the soldiers to pin cards to their sack coat or shirt, or to wear a metal disk around the neck, upon which he would write his name and hometown. If his body would be found the undertaker would know where to send it."

Of course, now we have dogtags, body bags and helicopters. There must still be 'local' embalmers though.

Roof repairs

Interesting use of US Army issue shelter halves (one-half of a 2 man tent) to patch the holes in the roof. Most troops would ditch the shelter halves on a long march so there were probably plenty lying around for just such an expedient repair job.

A little late.

Does it really matter if they're free from infection? Isn't it a bit late for that?

On Layaway

Maybe you could open up a layaway account.

My guess is it was more of a C.O.D: Cash Or Decay.

There were several coffin makers during the Civil War that specialized in hermetically sealed iron models. These were supposedly good for odor-free shipping, but I imagine quite a few burst unexpectedly when the pressure of expanding corpse gases exceeded the strength of the seals.
Probably why we don't have Tupperware coffins.

Excuse me, but my corpse has an account here.

My question is how did the Doctor get paid in a timely manner? Wire transfers of money from the family were possible, but given the necessity of a speedy embalming, the ease of wire fraud, slow and doubtful communications, the anarchy of the front lines, and a "cash in hand before embalming" business model, how exactly did they work the business end?

Perhaps those who had the funds worked out a deal with the company paymaster that, in the event of death, money held on account with the paymaster was to be used to secure a prompt embalming and shipment of the body. As we all know, Embalming delayed is Embalming denied.

This reminded me...

I have been making my way through Harry Stout's "Upon the Altar of the Nation," and coincidentally, recently read about the industry of caskets and embalming that blossomed at the civil war battlefields. While embalmers were present, Stout notes that often times, soldiers were left to their own devices in caring for the remains of their own. Stout quotes a letter, sent home by a Private Edwin Wheelock:

"The bodies of the two that were killed of our company exhumed day before yesterday...were put in boxes ready to send home. Their parents were anxious to have the bodies sent home. The bodies were packed in lar[d]."

That's chilling.


It may have been one of the History channel things but I recall seeing that embalming was unusual and relatively expensive back then. For soldiers killed in action, they were usually buried near the battlefield before decomposition became too big a problem. However, if you could afford it (mostly officers), you could be embalmed and be preserved enough to be shipped home for burial.


I imagine that in the static war in Virginia in 1864-65 there was a market for shipping Union dead back home rather than burying them in the field.

If they could afford it I'm sure families would want Johnny back home. Embalming would be essential.

Embalming the Dead?

I certainly hope so!

Embalming the DEAD?

I certainly hope so.

Good Thing

That Dr. Bunnell's practice is limited to "The Dead."


Who did he embalm?
What happened to the subject after he did his stuff?
Were they soldiers?
How did he get paid?
Was he a camp follower?
Was he considered a Sutler?
Was he really a Doctor?
Would I really like to see this picture through a Stereopticon?

Without odor?

Well, where's the fun in that?

And it looks as if the horses can't get out of there fast enough!

I'm just sayin....

It doesn't look like Dr. Bunnell is doing too well! The place gives me the creeps! I know it's during the war, but still...

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