Writing a story about a nineteenth-century embalmer, as I did in The Undertaker’s Assistant, may seem strange and even morbid. But it was the broader social interactions surrounding death and mourning that interested me. In this era, sanitation and disease were little understood, and the death rate was significantly higher than today. Illness, death, and mourning, therefore, were a more common thread in people’s lives. Unlike today, where 80% of people die in hospitals or nursing homes, most nineteenth-century Americans died in their homes. They were nursed in the home before death. Afterward, their bodies were washed and prepared for burial there. Depending on their religious traditions, they were laid out in the front room or parlor for viewing and funeral services. They were interred at home in the family plot. So death was not only a common occurrence but also a more intimate one.
Embalming, in the broad sense of artificially preserving the dead, has been practiced for millennia. Ancient Egyptians embalmed their dead. So too did the Guanches, the Incas, and other early South American cultures. Their specific practices varied, but often entailed the removal of the internal organs and covering of the body in salt, resin, or bitumen.
In 1838, a new technique for embalming, injecting preservative into the arteries, was developed in France. Knowledge of this practice spread to the United States just in time for the Civil War when families wanted a way to bring loved ones who died on the battlefield home for burial. It helped that President Lincoln embraced this new practice. When his eleven-year-old son Willie died in 1862 from typhoid fever, Lincoln had him embalmed. Three years later, the same man who had embalmed Willie preserved Lincoln’s body after his assassination.
These early embalmers were pioneers in the field and often experimental. They used poisonous chemicals like arsenic and mercury in their preserving fluid. Before the invention of handheld injection pumps, embalmers relied on gravity to infuse the circulatory system, a process that took hours. Embalmers trailed behind the Union and Confederate armies, setting up makeshift embalming facilities in tents near the battlefield. They charged as much as $100 for their services, which was more than seven and half times an army private’s monthly salary.
Many families bore this expense to bring the bodies of their loved ones home. Not only did embalming help grieving relatives find closure, it also aligned with other death and mourning practices of the day that aimed to preserve the deceased’s memory. Post-mortem photography was popular during this era. Often, a daguerreotype or tintype of the dead lying in rest was the only photograph families had of them. Family members took clippings of the deceased’s hair and wove them into bracelets and earing, or inlaid them in brooches. Tears were collected in vials and buried with the dead. Etiquette books outlined the stages of mourning and the appropriate customs to observe—what to wear, what type of stationery to use when sending death notices, what to cook for the funeral dinner.
Even as a nurse, who’s seen more death than many, I find the ritual and intimacy of nineteenth-century funerary practices foreign and, at times, bizarre. I wonder, however, if there isn’t something healing in participating in each stage of the death and grieving process. Many people whose loved ones die in a hospital intensive care unit experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Could this be due, in part, to the distance so many tubes and monitors and machines create between the dying and their loved ones? A distance only heightened when the body is whisked away to the morgue or funeral home and not seen again until the wake or burial, if at all.
I certainly wouldn’t like to return to the nineteenth century when people frequently died from now curable diseases. I believe in the miracles of modern medicine. I witnessed such miracles in the ICU myself. But I also understand the impulse of our forbears to want to participate in and ritualize the process of the death and mourning as a way to honor the dead and grieve their loss. For Effie, the main character in The Undertaker’s Assistant, embalming is not a way of connecting with the dead but with the living. It is not a strange or morbid pursuit, but one of profound humanity.
Set during Reconstruction-era New Orleans, and with an extraordinary and unforgettable heroine at its heart, The Undertaker’s Assistant is a powerful story of human resilience—and of the unlikely bonds that hold fast even in our darkest moments.
“The dead can’t hurt you. Only the living can.” Effie Jones, a former slave who escaped to the Union side as a child, knows the truth of her words. Taken in by an army surgeon and his wife during the War, she learned to read and write, to tolerate the sight of blood and broken bodies—and to forget what is too painful to bear. Now a young freedwoman, she has returned south to New Orleans and earns her living as an embalmer, her steady hand and skillful incisions compensating for her white employer’s shortcomings.
Tall and serious, Effie keeps her distance from the other girls in her boarding house, holding tight to the satisfaction she finds in her work. But despite her reticence, two encounters—with a charismatic state legislator named Samson Greene, and a beautiful young Creole, Adeline—introduce her to new worlds of protests and activism, of soirees and social ambition. Effie decides to seek out the past she has blocked from her memory and try to trace her kin. As her hopes are tested by betrayal, and New Orleans grapples with violence and growing racial turmoil, Effie faces loss and heartache