Toward an Eco-Friendly Death

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

Lincoln’s Corpse Changes History

Americans have not always taken to embalming, a process that delays the decomposition of the body; it remains unpopular in much of the rest of the world, as well. Jewish and Muslim laws do not allow the body to be embalmed; the Jews believe the body’s insides, like blood, to be as holy as its outsides. Most Buddhists and Hindus are cremated without being embalmed. Neither state nor federal laws in the U.S. require bodies to be embalmed, except in rare circumstances, like transporting corpses across some state lines.

Embalming wasn’t common in the U.S. until the Civil War, when many Northern families wanted to transport the bodies of fallen Union soldiers above the Mason-Dixon line. Transporting the bodies by train, from battlefields in the rural South into Yankee territory, was impractical without first embalming the bodies, particularly in warm summer months; sometimes the bodies would begin to decompose on the journey, or would release putrefying gases that ran the risk of exploding. (Scientists call this rare phenomenon “Exploding Casket Syndrome.”)

But it wasn’t until President Lincoln’s body was embalmed that the citizenry began to embrace the procedure. The 16th president’s body was publicly displayed in Washington, D.C. before undertaking a 1,600-mile, two-week journey from the nation’s capital to Springfield, Ill. An estimated one million Americans saw the preserved body on its funeral trip.

Lincoln’s posthumous train tour made many Americans feel more comfortable about embalming, which some had previously considered a desecration of the body. (Some Christian websites still advocate this view — that the body is God’s temple.) The embalming process is more invasive than simple blood draining. Embalmers first disinfect the body with a spray; they also loosen muscles stiffened by rigor mortis. Men are shaved. The eyes often retract into the sockets, so plastic caps, shaped like contact lenses, are placed into the sockets to keep the eyelids closed. The mouth is locked shut invisibly, either with a thread that runs from the jaw and into the nasal cavity or through the injection of needles — one through both the upper and lower jaw, then twisted together. Blood is drained through veins and arteries in the neck and leg; preservative chemicals are injected into the body through tubes connected to veins and arteries in the neck and travel through the body, penetrating muscle and tissue. The average body requires three or four gallons of the chemical cocktail, which includes dye to give the body a more natural tint. (The dye also allows embalmers to assure that the chemicals have spread to all the parts of the body.) Organs are also drained of their internal fluids, like bile, using a metal tube, with a blade at one end, inserted through the abdomen. The bodies are re-washed, make-up is applied, hair is combed and fingernails are trimmed. The body is dressed, placed in the coffin and posed.

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