So what was your beach reading list like this year? I recently finished reading This Republic of Suffering: Death in the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. Not exactly cheery summer fare, I suppose, by fascinating nonetheless in this, the sesqui-centenary of that dreadful conflict. The book points out how, in the face of mind-numbing casualties, Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line struggled to develop a new understanding of death, if you will. The deep-seated need to recover tangible remains of a loved one in order to achieve some measure of closure was often complicated by the relative remoteness of battlefields, the horrific impact of modern munitions (and disease) on human flesh, and the predictable effects of heat and humidity on corpses. With me so far? Good!
During the course of the war some enterprising undertakers stepped in to help satisfy this need, providing embalming services if requested and arranging for the shipment of bodies back to loved ones. Several firms, particularly in the North, developed reusable containers, some of wood and some of metal, for transporting bodies by train. The basic idea was to reduce the problem of decomposition by keeping bodies cool while in transit. Certain railroads provided insulated box cars for transporting bodies, and some of the transport containers could even accommodate ice to further slow the disfiguring breakdown of tissue.
Which brings me (finally) to an item in the CHS collection. In 1994 I received a call from a funeral director in Middletown offering what he described as a “corpse preserver”. Hmmm. Turns out that over several generations his family had collected funerary devices to display in their funeral home. What I found when I arrived was a coffin-shaped object made of walnut. OK so far. The item was constructed in two sections that joined horizontally. With the two halves apart, the undertaker would place the body on a board in the bottom half, then attach the top half, held together with clasps. The upper half incorporated a galvanized iron tank, which would be filled with ice. As the air inside the object cooled, it would sink and in the process chill the corpse below, thus in theory retarding decomposition. Better yet, a clever oval glass viewing port was incorporated in the top to allow mourners to see the face of the deceased without admitting warm air into the chamber (or releasing disagreeable odors I presume). Though the “corpse preserver” was insulated with horsehair, the ice would eventually begin to melt and drain out two small pipes at the “foot” end of the preserver. A bucket could be used to catch the meltwater. I would imagine that a full bucket would signal the need to replenish the ice supply.
In addition to the wartime demand for returning bodies, even in peacetime these “improved corpse preservers” could fill a demand. Embalming was not available everywhere, even after the war. Some immigrant groups desired a mourning period that could last a matter of days, as my Irish ancestors likely did in their homes. Technology serving a cultural need! Naturally, once the mourning process was completed the deceased would be transferred to a coffin for interment.
According to the donor our “corpse preserver” was found by his father in a house in Litchfield in the 1920s. A page in an 1876 catalog of C. Rogers & Brothers in West Meriden advertised these devices, patented and manufactured by the firm of Disbrow & Van Cleve in New Jersey. They were available in a variety of sizes and finishes. Our example, at more than six feet in length, was the largest. It even incorporated a kind of ratcheted elevator mechanism that allowed the body to be raised inside the compartment for better viewing of the deceased’s face!
How common are surviving examples of these “corpse preservers” today? Not very, according to a PhD candidate who is studying the American funeral industry. In fact, she said that, although she had seen articles and advertisements for these, ours was the first example she had actually found. Needless to say, she was a happy camper. So as the month of foolish ghoulishness returns, try picturing your favorite “undead” in one of these!
But wait! There’s more! Why not sign up for our special behind-the-scene tour, CHS Gets Creepy, on October 12 (check www.chs.org for details) and see the “corpse preserver” for yourself, up close and personal!