1800s Funeral Technology
Updated: May 7
The Civil War (1861-1865) is still the bloodiest war our nation has ever fought in terms of the number of American deaths from war. More than 625,000 people died in the Civil War and more than 20% of the men who fought died. It’s hard to imagine how profoundly this war affected the nation. Nearly every family—North and South—was affected by the war. Nearly three million men fought in the Civil War, about 2.5% of the total population. The population of the United States was about 31 million in 1860. (Today, the fatality rate would be about eight million dead.)
Matthew Brady’s shocking Civil War photography of battlefield dead exposed to the American public for the first time through mass media the terrifying realities of war. Death was on the mind of the entire nation as civilians waited for casualty lists after each horrible battle. Everywhere there were maimed men who returned from battle missing limbs and sometimes their minds. No one could escape the war’s ravages.
Because of the nature of battle casualties and the overwhelming job of collecting the wounded and the dead, there were numerous cases of men who lay for days dying in agony on the battlefields. Many who were comatose or unconscious were often taken for dead and buried in mass graves or, more seldom, individual graves. The numbers we will never know. But after the war, there was a massive campaign to find the dead and reinter them in war cemeteries or return them to their families for burial. What those re-interment gravediggers found were often horrifying: wounded soldiers who had been buried alive and had tried to dig their way above ground.
Victorians had an especially gruesome fascination with death. Writers like Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote terrifying stories of being buried alive, and Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, about creating a creature made from corpses, caused a nearly hysterical obsession with death.
The sensational stories newspapers published about soldiers being buried alive or civilian funerals in which the deceased suddenly sat up in their coffins at their own funerals caused huge sensations and fueled Victorian fear of live internment. (The first half of the 1800s was rife with physicians who lacked adequate medical knowledge—and often medical degrees—to diagnose death, pronouncing mortality prematurely.) It’s not surprising that the Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive had a burgeoning membership and that during the Civil War and the years following, there was an explosion of patents for burial systems created to protect against such catastrophes.
The poor person’s protection against live internment was being buried with a crowbar and shovel inside the casket. They’d just have to dig themselves out! The next step up was a pipe that went from the casket to the surface, so the revived would have an oxygen supply and also be able to yell up through the pipe for help.
The wealthy had more deluxe options. The most popular system was the Bateson Revival Device, which included a string attached to the buried body that could ring a bell above ground upon awakening. The Bateson was advertised as “a most economical, ingenious and trustworthy mechanism, superior to any other method, and promoting peace of mind amongst the bereaved. A device of proven efficacy, in countless instances in this country and abroad.” There are no records that prove the device, indeed, ever saved anyone from premature burial. Ironically, the inventor, George Bateson, was so consumed with the fear of premature internment (apparently he did not have complete faith in his own invention!), he was driven mad and, in 1886, doused himself completely with linseed oil and set himself on fire, ensuring his own death BEFORE burial.
For those who wanted their dead to stay dead, the mortuary industry invented ingenious ways of ensuring mortality. Coffins were fitted with capsules of poison gas that would be pierced by nails when they were finally driven into the casket.
Embalming, too, was also a surefire way of ensuring death. Although embalming had been done in Europe, at least among the upper classes in the last half of the 1700s, it did not catch on widely in the United States until the Civil War, when transporting bodies long distances required it. In fact, Abraham Lincoln was embalmed so that he could be transported back to Springfield, Illinois, via the famous funeral train. His death brought embalming into the public spotlight.
Arsenic was first used for embalming. Then formaldehyde was developed for preserving flesh, not just in funeral procedures but for medical cadavers or other specimens for scientific study. Formaldehyde could also have colorants added that gave the corpse a more lifelike glow.
Cosmetic techniques to enhance corpses was also developed as a mortuary art, filling sunken eyes, puffing cheeks, adding lipstick and gypsum on dark eyelids, plumping lips, arranging hands in lifelike poses, elaborate hairdressing, etc. Eyelids were almost always closed for burial—often achieved by putting cotton under the eyelids, because most eye muscles relax after death and the eyes are often partially opened. Opened eyes were extremely upsetting to many family members, but there were rare cases when corpses were preserved with eyes open and glass eyeballs inserted.
There was another downside of being dead: having your body snatched by body snatchers. By the mid-1800s, body snatching had become a full-fledged profession and quite lucrative, not just for booty and jewelry, but especially for medical schools that were in dire need of cadavers. The medical profession was expanding rapidly and the study of anatomy providing huge discoveries in medical knowledge. But many families didn’t appreciate their expired loved ones being the corpus delicti and technology once again provided protection: the grave gun and the coffin torpedo!
The grave gun or cemetery gun was a conventional firearm—locked and loaded--on a swiveling base above ground at the foot of the grave. It was triggered by trip wires connected to the coffin lid and would spin and shoot grave robbers. Fresh corpses were usually the object of grave robbers for medical cadavers, so family would often rent the weapon for only weeks after the burial. But the system had huge disadvantages. Innovative grave robbers quickly learned how to disable a grave gun and acquired a free firearm to boot. The answer was the coffin torpedo, which was armed with a gun, small cannon or explosives discretely hidden below ground!
Advertisements for one coffin torpedo read: “Sleep well sweet angel, let no fears of ghouls disturb thy rest. For above thy shrouded body lies a torpedo, ready to make minced meat of anyone who attempts to convey your lovely form to the pickling vat.”
Another protection against grave robbers was the “mortsafe,” which was basically an iron cage encasing the coffin visible above ground. Some deluxe versions had cement caps.
The Victorian obsession with death led to a wildly robust mortuary industry that “lives” on today. Ironic that the return to low-tech burials are now de riguer in modern times. Such burials would have good company; among them the many thousands of pioneers buried on the trail west. My Iowa farmer granddad always said he wanted such a no-frills burial, only to become part of the earth he loved. His preference: “Just use a post-hole digger and stuff me in!”
(Special note: A quick look on the Internet revealed that there are actually gun collectors of antique grave guns today. Twenty-two grave guns are listed on Etsy alone. There are still torpedo coffins, grave guns and explosives interred in burial sites from the 1800s. So, tread lightly!)
PHOTOS: (1) Matthew Brady’s shocking Civil War photography of battlefield dead exposed to the public for the first time through mass media the brutal realities of war. There were so many dead after battles that disposal of bodies was a major challenge. Often soldiers comatose or unconscious on the battlefield were unwittingly buried alive. Later, during re-interment campaigns to rebury soldiers more respectfully, grave diggers found bodies that had tried to dig themselves out. (2) Edgar Allen Poe’s terrifying stories of death and live interment caused a national phobia of being buried alive. (3 & 4) Many inventions in the mid-1800s sought to protect against live internment or grave robbing. (5, 6 & 7) Embalming equipment from the mid-1800s. Embalming in the U.S. became popular starting in the 1860s during the Civil War, after Lincoln’s death (he was embalmed for the long train trip to Illinois) and the many soldiers whose bodies were transported across the nation to be buried by their families. (8) A body being embalmed in the 1800s, possibly on a Civil War battlefield. (9 &10) Mortsafes were iron cages installed around burial sites to prevent grave robbing. (11) “Grave guns” were installed in cemeteries near freshly dug graves to ensure against corpse robbing. They were often locked and loaded and attached to trip wires connected to the coffin lid or even threaded around the grave. Because grave guns were visible and could be disarmed and stolen, inventors developed “torpedo coffins” that were armed with guns or explosives below ground.
See also these related posts:
-Death on the Trail
"1800s Funeral Technology" was first posted July 12, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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