When and why did the custom of embalming become widespread in the United States?

Embalming was not generally practiced in America until the advent of the Civil War. Until then, most people died within their own community, and were directly buried without embalming very soon following death. However, the many battles fought between 1861 and 1865 saw death on a scale theretofore unseen. Soldiers died in massive numbers, far from their homes. Many families wished to see their loved ones once more, and bury them in familiar ground. This created an urgent need for a better way to preserve the bodies, so they could be returned for later burial at home.

Dr. Thomas Holmes, a physician with embalming experience, is given credit for the surge in embalming during this time. He reportedly embalmed over 4000 bodies of Union officers throughout the war, as well as developing his own embalming solution which he produced and sold to other physicians. Sources report that around 40,000 men of the 650,000 killed during the war were embalmed.

After the war ended, embalming fell out of popularity because, once more, people who died were usually close to home and the family could provide their own death care. Interest in embalming arose again around the turn of the century. Many people are surprised to learn that embalming is a comparatively recent custom that is more commonly practiced in America than in many other countries.