The Short-Lived Trade of Embalming Surgeons

 cwpb 01887 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.01887
Embalming Surgeon at work in the field during the Civil War.

Most of the United States was still a wide open wilderness when the Great War between the states broke out. Young men who knew little about life beyond the borders of their own farm’s fence rail were suddenly far from home and doing what was previously unthinkable.  

While some boys came home with doctoring skills, others brought home the lucrative specialty title “Embalming Surgeon.” Those who were willing to abandon their post (and could stomach it) were hired away from the armies of both sides by the booming embalming service businesses.

Field embalming could be completed in about two hours, with a minimal investment in chemicals. These gruesome entrepreneurs followed behind active battles with their tents and supplies. They employed men as “pickers” to glean blood soaked fields in search of freshly dead and mostly intact men.

“Runners” were used to contact the agents whose territory included the deadmen’s hometown. With such a streamlined system in place, the embalmer’s agents often delivered the grievous news before the official Army telegrams were dispatched. No time was wasted in the rush to sell devastated loved ones services for preservation and shipping of their soldier’s remains.

By railroad rules, only embalmed corpses would be accepted for transport. No spoiled (foul smelling) cargo of any kind was allowed. At the beginning of the great conflict between the states, bodies were packed and crated in straw and ice. However, as the war continued, delays and detours became common, and iced corpses could putrefy beside other cargo before reaching home.

When Pickers ran out onto a new battlefield, officers’ remains were favored over enlisted men. Their families were likely to be wealthier. With fees around $50 for an officer, and $25 for an enlisted man ($2500 and $1250 in today’s money) there were fortunes to be made. The service’s price included packing the remains in crudely made wood transport coffins lined with zinc against leakage.

Of course there were some Agents who were just plain cheats. These swindlers set a price upon seeing the dead soldier’s home; sometimes demanding outrageous fees at large homes with the threat of discarding the body; effectively ransoming the corpse to loved ones.

After President Lincoln’s body made its fourteen day farewell tour by train, the public in all parts of the country embraced the previously rare practice of routine embalming. Still, the market for Embalming Surgeons quickly evaporated. Undertakers at home were already set up with profitable furniture and coffin making shops. They had digging crews and fancied-up funeral hacks called “hearses” to tote the departed in.

For hometown undertakers, adding this service was an easy moneymaker. Some Embalming Surgeons found work with established undertakers; most turned to farming or whatever trade they’d left off with before the war.

Can’t find an old photo of an event relevant to your Family History? Check out the Library of Congress Image Collection. You can search by collection, events, or key words. In most cases, usage availability is noted. A few will suggest a search before using the image for publication or display (like on a blog or publication). Their cache of available photos and other forms of imagery is incredible–make it a part of your writing and researching toolbox!

Celebrating Gramcracker’s 104th

Gramcracker with my Dad c1935.
Gramcracker with my Dad c1935.

As everyone notices I often write about my Grandmother, who I lovingly called “Gramcracker.” She has been missing from my life for several years now. If she was still living, today would be her 104th birthday.

Recently, I was the recipient of the most fabulous gift...this photo of her my cousin found in an old box. I shared it with my dad a couple of days ago. In his 81 years, he had never seen it. Everyone recognizes it though; clearly it is the full-size version of my dad’s baby photo.

I‘m guessing, just like many young mothers today, Gramcracker had herself cropped out of the prints she shared with family. I’m afraid that says something a little bit sad about women and body image and our inner-drives for perfection. Ah, but that is another story!

Today is a day for my own quiet celebration of her life and the gift that both she and this long-lost photo were to me. Every year on July 2nd, I try to sit quietly for a while and recall the most mundane actions of our times together. 

Sometimes I think about the epic, summer-long yard sales we ran together–that’s where I learned math and negotiation skills. As a result, my husband sends ME to the car dealer to make the family purchases. No one can rough up a sales manager like Mom. For all the extra nice cars I’ve driven through the years, I can thank Gramcracker for teaching me to wheel and deal before I started Kindergarten.

Of course, I spend a lot of time thinking about food too.

Her house was Kid-Land-Deluxe where non-enforced nutrition was concerned. There was an enormous chest freezer out on the enclosed back porch filled with boxes of Fudgies (I believe the common and trademarked name is Fudge-sicles) and Popsicles. At Gramcracker’s house it was totally acceptable (and expected) that the red and purple ice pops were for eating…the orange and green ones were only fit for the trash or to share with our beagles on hot summer afternoons.

Other “foods” at Gramcracker’s included bowls of Lucky Charms. And by that I mean literal bowls full of Lucky Charms without the pesky bits of tasteless, vitamin enriched “cereal.” At Gram’s it was fine and dandy to eat only the good part and dispose of the rest without being forced to “at least taste it.” I ate many dinners consisting of only sliced cucumber salad without meat or other icky stuff forced onto my plate.

There were stacks of wooden soda-pop boxes filled with assorted bottles of fizzy stuff too. Flavors like Orange, Grape, and my coveted personal favorite–Strawberry–were always abundant. Oh she wasn’t all sugar and empty calories…there was always milk in the fridge…chocolate milk.

Did I mention the “cornies?” That was the house-name for cheese puffs. Chester Cheetah and I were orange-finger-tipped friends all summer, year after year. My mom used to grumble it was a wonder that I didn’t die of Rickets by the end of each extended visit.

Good Times

As age and time took her mind, my grandmother slipped into a non-specified form of dementia. I was her some-time care giver during those last few years. My uncle lived with her full time and cared for her around the clock. Fortunately, she was never given to bouts of “Sundowning” like many folks with memory issues. So there was no out of character, combative fits, or terrifying times when she was scared to death because everyone was a “stranger.”

Her form of dementia had a good dose of across-the-board memory loss–with short-term and long-term lapses being about equal. And there were certainly confusion issues. Most nurturing acts such as bathing her and hair brushing she thought were being performed by her mother, no matter who was holding the brush or wiping her face.

When Gramcracker first started having issues, it was as a combo of her eyesight (may have been an early cognitive impairment marker) and her arthritis. She had worked a “man’s job” inspecting rubber tubes at Uniroyal for years. Here entire body had suffered the effects of the long shifts standing on her feet, bent at the shoulders, doing her job. As a newly divorced mother of three, she had been lucky enough to be hired during the War years. When peace was declared, she was again fortunate to retain her position because she had proven herself as a hard worker and excellent inspector.

Perhaps one of the earliest indicators of her decline was that she could no longer hold (her hands hurt) or see (her eyes were bad she said) her beloved romance novels. Over the years she must have read every single “Harley Quinn” Romance ever available at the grocer’s check out lane.

When the corner market lacked a fresh paperback for her to take home she was an avid reader of the National Enquirer–which I was also allowed to read…hmmm. That might explain some stuff 🙂

So, she began watching Soap Operas in place of her Romance novels. She called them her “Programs.” Inadvertently interrupting a “Program” by telephoning or stopping by to visit with Gramcracker without checking the time and TV Guide first could get you hurt!

After a few months, she began speaking as if she were a narrator for a real-life soap opera. It was funny, trippy, and only a wee bit worrisome.

As her body fell into a quick downward spiral, her mind followed along for the ride. Soon she dropped all social filters and spilled several very juicy family “secrets” with no cushioning or delicate prancing around the cold facts. She became brutally honest and very straight forward. A few of those tales are what I would refer to as “hair curlers” and I cannot be sure which ones were leftovers from her Soap Opera Narrative stage.

Over recent years, I have chased down the many of the stories she told me from that period and have found evidence of truth in each one–so far.

In my eyes, those few months of odd lucidity concerning the recollection of painful events was short lived. Suddenly she moved on to the last stage of her mental affliction; the “continuous loop.”

And that brings us to the day that I think I killed Gramcracker.

I know that sounds weird, nefarious, confessive…but I kind of worry that is what happened.

Let me explain

One day while my Uncle went out to a doctor’s appointment and to run a few errands, I came over to hang out with Gramcracker. Her state of “crazy” never really bothered me. I always thought of it as life in reverse. When I was little and living with her, I know that I did, said, and caused more than my share of absurdity. Like the afternoon my mom called the police because she thought I’d been snatched. I was hiding among the coats at the rack beside the telephone desk. When I heard her making the report I began to giggle. She hung up the phone and I got a heck of a whooping–Gramcracker wasn’t there to save me, she was sleeping after a night shift. I also know that I loved to sleep with her on her big feather bed. And she always let me, never complained, not a wink…even though I was a notorious bed-wetter.

The woman was a Saint in my eyes.

Her need to ask a question, re-ask, and then ask again– or to repeat the same sentence over and over didn’t annoy me in the least. Plus, among all the people she would see and not recognize–she always–always–knew me. She often couldn’t remember my given name, but she did remember that I was Goldie. Remembering me by the pet name she had given me, that was a gift for me to hang my heart on. All else aside, recognizing me as Goldie let me know she recalled our special bond.

On this particular day there were two questions that Gramcracker could not, would not let go of. Although they were nothing along the lines of what was shared between Bernadette and Our Lady of Fatima–the two things she kept asking me will never be revealed. And in reality, in the bigger scheme of things in the world, they were very small little matters, but they clearly were nagging her.

She asked me the same questions over and over in a carousel fashion.

I felt dizzy as she would ask, I would answer, she would ask the other question and before I could get the “brush it off answer #2” past my lips, she would hit me again with query #1. 

And then I snapped. Even though I had been told–don’t tell your Grandmother about blahblahblah#1–I did. 

She didn’t flinch. She moved on to question #2–I had been “sternly told” to not upset Grandmother with that situation either.

Well, she knew she had me cornered–I buckled–gave her the answer and then I watched as her entire demeanor changed. She relaxed, became quiet and a veil of serenity dropped over her. She was not upset. Gramcracker was a very intuitive woman and she knew she had been lied to about these two small issues for a long time. That hurt her, obviously pressing her with a great deal of unease. She was not shocked or upset. Relief is what happened. The two people and their “situtations” she had asked me about like a “ring around the rosy” were things she needed to know about. Without the truth, she could feel no peace.

When that understanding crossed the room from her adled mind to mine I audibly gasped.

Oh crap! I just killed Gramcracker! 

Seeing the great weight lift off of her I sensed that these were two very important answers that she needed to have. She was always a mother to many more than her own children. She worried about and protected and fiercely loved us all. She had to know that we were all safe–that was the end game for her life–to be sure that those she loved were capable without her. I felt like I had just given her the permission that she had been seeking to leave.

Several weeks later she “took a turn” and within days was gone forever. I knew it was okay with her, because she knew the truth about two nagging questions her heart couldn’t let her relent on. 

Living without her still hurts though.

But she taught me some important stuff and so I am strong. She taught me to fend for myself, only keep a man around if he was good to me and my kids, and to take good care of my hair–because it’s “a woman’s crown and glory.”

So Happy Birthday Gramcracker, I’m pretty sure you can see me–but just in case, I want you to know– I can buy my own car, I have a good husband–and my hair looks really good!  

*************

If you or someone close to you is a caregiver or love someone who is experiencing a dementia spectrum disease, do yourself a favor and check out the excellent blog “Going Gentle Into that Good Night” the information and stories there are worth a read! See it by clicking on the name. I highly recommend it.

Father’s Day in Prose

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Mom’s real-life family of origin. That handsome devil on the left is my Pop. I’m the tall one on the right. How many times do you suppose an Olin Mills photographer had to look at this same pose in the 60s?

In honor of all the Fathers out there, and in celebration of their “Day,” I’ve been saving up a small cache of poems. I love that all three are written by, or about men who are/ were fathers.

All are very different pieces, and all speak to different facets of the condition known as “manhood.” One is of the Veteran who never watched “War Movies.” One is of a man wishing to resurrect his younger years fathering his son and sharing adventures in a canoe. And the third, was written about the camaraderie and ritual of having breakfast, lunch, and “coffee” at Jack’s Place, the restaurant and small town bee-hive operated by my husband’s Coon Hound raising grandfather.

Happy Father’s day to All Dads– both here now and those who have already gone on. Know that you will live forever in the fiber that swaddles us up together as a family 

#1 Sailor Man

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#2  Resurrection

Looking backward, time with our children seems to have rushed by like running water
Looking backward, time with our children seems to have rushed by like running water

   Resurrection

     T. D. Richards

Hope dead that it will be reborn

in this life, the canoe lays upside down in

a field of weeds.

A warped  bottom proudly shows

a roadmap of its weathered history.

Anyone interested can see it has lived long.

Early on, a companion for father and son,

it now seems to be in the way.  It can’t

help it wears heavy metal and is extra long.

How to compete with youngsters

who are sleek and sexy in fiberglass.

What really matters though is

who’s left to recount it’s connection

with  its’ family of origin?

Who gets excited telling of its passages?

Who can thrill by reciting its blustery

as well as its halcyon days?

Who is there who can point out

which dent came from Sugar Creek

in Parke County and which came from

the West Fork of White?

Like few others she is not totally forgotten.

Some believe that there’s a river

to cross when you die.

Father to son, refit the old lady

when it’s time for my last voyage.

If it’s true, I’d like her to smooth the way.

#3 Coffee Shop routine

Champion of Hound Breeding and owner of the Town's best Diner
Champion of Hound Breeding and owner of the Town’s best Diner
I believe this piece first appeared as a tribute to Grandpa CoonHound in the local newspaper
I believe this piece first appeared as a tribute to Grandpa CoonHound in the local newspaper
Marjie Gates Giffin is an Author and Poet. Look for her new book of poems coming early next year
Marjie Gates Giffin is an Author and Poet and one of my very favorite people in the world. Look for her new book of poems coming early next year
Click to order TD Richards' book This Side and That from Amazon
Click to order TD Richards’ book This Side and That from Amazon. Look for his new collection coming soon!

Happy Tuesday to All

My Pop as the BA biker-boy that he was.
My Pop as the BA biker-boy that he was.

Today Maybe someone should write that down… has gone off on a field trip with Mom. I’m guest blogging on the PressBooks site, writing a quick synopsis of the How to Write a Book series. You can read Writing the Book on Your Family History by clicking the link. I don’t know if they recognized how many “Mom-isms” are peppered in to the article…see if you spot them 😉

Next Tuesday, I hope to report back with too many photos from Son’s Indy Car experience…he’s doing a 2-seater ride around the famed oval, speeding across the yard of bricks at 200+ mph. I want to get him wired for sound so I can hear a 20 year old 6’7″ young man scream his way around the famed Indy 500 track. I’m looking forward to that being a great story…perhaps after he’s had a few hours to regain his voice.

Maybe someone should write THAT down…

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