01886 - Dr. Bunnell's embalming shed; Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 1862 [LC-DIG-cwpb-01886]
William J. Bunnell was born in Duchess County, New York in 1825. His 2nd cousin, Lafayette H. Bunnell, had become famous for the discovery of Yosemite Valley in California in 1851. At the start of the Civil War, William Bunnell was 35 years old and entering the new field of embalming. Before embalming, when a person died the funeral must be held within 1-2 days or the decay from the body would become a health issue. This meant when a soldier died in a faraway battle that the family would not be able to bury their relative locally, as the body would not survive transportation. For that reason, the majority of bodies were buried on cemeteries on or near the battlefield.
For those who could afford it, embalming became an option. The practice had recently been introduced in New York by Dr. Thomas Holmes. For a fee, embalming fluid would be pumped into the body to help preserve it and then shipped home. Embalming surgeons would scour the battlefield after the war to recover the bodies of officers (whose family could presumably afford the service) as well as enlisted soldiers, who had pre-paid with either cash or items of valuables.
Embalming was a lucrative trade with some embalmers performing their trade thousands of times during the war. A typical charge may be $7.00 for enlisted and $13.00 for officers. For an enlisted man this was equal to a ½ month’s pay and was difficult for many to afford. Many embalmers became very wealthy by following the armies in the field.
The South had neither the knowledge nor resources to afford embalming and it remained principally a Northern occurrence. When Lincoln was embalmed to allow his body to be transported to Illinois, the acceptance of the practice became more widespread. Few of the embalmers, including its creator Dr. Holmes, practiced embalming after the war. For those that did, the practice of modern funeral procedures we know today grew gradually during the end of the 19th century.
As for Dr. Bunnell, he settled in Jersey City, New Jersey and died at the age of 66 in 1891. It is not known if his body was embalmed.