By Grant Cottage Operations Manager Ben Kemp
In our modern world discussion about mortuary preparations is typically relegated to arranging funerals for recently departed loved ones. Throughout history the preparation of the deceased in all its various forms, has been a necessary task that certain individuals in a society undertook. The treatment of the body has varied according to beliefs, customs and circumstances. Many of the methods of the past have largely faded away but looking back at the mortuary and funeral preparations of Ulysses S. Grant can give us a glimpse into the world Grant and his family inhabited in 1885.
One week after arriving at the cottage on Mount McGregor, a determined yet realistic Ulysses Grant wrote to his doctor: "I said I had been adding to my book and to my coffin. I presume every strain of the mind or body is one more nail in the coffin." Grant was nearing the completion of his memoirs and his life. He would survive one month longer after writing his note to the doctor before his words became reality. Although it would technically be a casket (rectangular) not a coffin (tapered) that would eventually hold his remains. In the meantime, Grant did not ignore the pragmatic reality of mortuary and funeral arrangements when communicating his final wishes to his family. To his son Fred he wrote, "If I should die here make arrangements for embalming my body and retaining it for burial until pleasant weather in the fall… Do not let the memory of me interfere with the progress of the book." Grant had witnessed high-profile funerals such as President Garfield’s and knew how elaborate and excessive they could become.
Different means of preserving bodies existed for thousands of years but Thomas Holmes, known as the “father of modern embalming” advanced the science significantly during the Civil War. The process provided a way to preserve the remains of soldiers which required lengthy shipment home for burial. Though General Grant saw the necessity of the practice he was wary of the rush of unregulated freelance “embalming surgeons” within the camps and their effect on the soldiers and ordered them out of the lines in early 1865. Embalming could still be conducted thereafter but only through sanctioned military protocol.
The term undertaker was first used in reference to those that prepared the bodies of the dead in the 17th century. Preservation efforts at that time were primarily for medical purposes but later they were to preserve and restore the appearance for viewing of the remains. Advances in embalming chemicals, tools and practices allowed the deceased, especially if famous, to be viewed for longer periods and at multiple locations. The practice of cremation in America was still in its infancy in the 1880’s, therefore preservation was the standard practice. With mortality rates still high compared to today’s standards, the funeral industry was thriving in the latter part of the 19th century. When a famous individual passed away it offered a great opportunity to showcase one’s mortuary craft but was a high stakes venture if something went wrong.
Following Grant’s death on July 23rd two undertakers were summoned to prepare the remains. Ebenezer Holmes was called in from nearby Saratoga Springs, NY by Hotel Balmoral proprietor William J. Arkell at the suggestion of Grant’s physician Dr. John Douglas. Knowing that time was of the essence in the summer heat Holmes brought along his patented invention the “Corpse Cooler Casket”. His ice-cooled casket was designed to better preserve the body of the deceased until the embalming process could be undertaken. Holmes’ associates were William J. Burke, who eventually opened his own funeral business which still exists in Saratoga Springs today and Dr. Richard McEwen who had served as a Surgeon during the Civil War. Reverend Stephen Merritt Jr. of New York City, who had been summoned by Grant’s oldest son Fred, arrived in the evening and took over the embalming process with associates Daniel Harrigan, Felix Sullivan and a small cadre of assistants. Sullivan was a lecturer on embalming and foremost in his trade, having worked on President Garfield and having just opened the New York School of Embalming the previous year. Merritt had taken over the family business in the 1870’s and was one of the most well-known and respected undertakers in New York City. Harrigan was tasked with providing for the funeral arrangements for Albany and Merritt for those in New York City. Conflict would arise between Merritt and Holmes over payments and libel that led to a lengthy court case involving the undertakers, the press and the Grant family.
The cancer had affected the appearance of General Grant and would pose a challenge to anyone preparing him for viewing to the public, especially given the inevitable public scrutiny due to his celebrity status. The family had opted against an autopsy so to honor their wishes the body would remain fully intact. There were many different embalming fluids on the market each with different ingredients and a multitude of factors that could affect the process. The funeral rites or obsequy preparations of General Grant were tracked closely in the papers. Rumors of mismanagement of the embalming quickly entered the newspapers and proved difficult to dispel. The reputations of the undertakers were on the line and different measures including multiple embalming treatments and bleaching of the skin were said to have taken place to improve the appearance of the deceased. Charles Bennison, inventor of disinfectant and embalming fluids, was also called in to assist with preservation efforts. Bennison told the press that expectations in regard to the “life-like” appearance of the deceased were always too high and that lighting and other factors had to be considered.
Grant’s casket arrived from the Stein Manufacturing Company of Rochester, NY on July 29th and his body was transferred from the ice casket. The custom-built 7 ft long casket was made of polished oak with an interior of burnished and lacquered copper lined with cream-white tufted satin and an exterior covering of dark purple velvet. Along the sides and on the ends were solid silver handles and a 4inch by 6inch 24 carat gold nameplate engraved with “U.S. Grant”. Grant’s military uniform and accoutrements were not readily available so Grant was dressed in a Prince Albert cut black suit with a white collar and a silk bow tie. Grant’s oldest son Fred placed a ring on his father's finger and placed a few personal mementos in his pocket. The casket was placed within a catafalque, a decorated framework used to house the casket of a distinguished individual, and a glass inner casket lid was screwed down to make it airtight. A flag was then draped over the casket.
Once the casket and catafalque were in place the parlor of the cottage was opened to visitors to file past and pay their respects. Those that saw Grant lying in repose (lying in state is only for state buildings) did so by the dim light of an early electric lightbulb under the watchful eye of veterans of the U.S. Grant Post of the Grand Army of the Republic from Brooklyn. The room held the fragrance of floral arrangements, a customary condolence gift that harkened back to the days before embalming was available to help stave off unpleasant odors. Despite intense speculation in the papers due to sultry summer conditions, the undertakers felt confident enough in their work to claim the body would be preserved for up to six months.
On August 4th, following a funeral service held on the porch of the cottage, “The rich velvet of the heavy casket gleamed and the polished silver trimmings glistened in the sun as it was borne to the station by twelve members of the U.S. Grant Post 327, of Brooklyn.” The undertakers would accompany the General’s body on elaborately decorated funeral trains from Mount McGregor to Albany where it was brought up in a funeral procession to lay in state in the Capitol Building overnight. There were again rumors in the papers about the supposedly poor appearance of the deceased and that Grant’s own sons were disturbed by it. The undertakers and embalmers were again on the defensive trying to refute these rumors. The papers discussed the merits of embalming and whether or not it was an effective method at all, citing the cases of previous presidents Lincoln and Garfield. When asked about the embalming of General Grant one professional embalmer told a reporter: “Gen. Grant’s embalming was work of the finest kind—something to be proud of. It was done by the leader of our profession, and with the best materials in the market. There are many mortuary directors who profess to be embalmers, and who know a smattering of the art; but they are unworthy of the name. Real embalmers are few in number, there not being more than ten in the entire country. To be one, an undertaker must have a sufficient knowledge of surgery, medicine and chemistry, and must also have considerable artistic sense. This makes a rare combination.” The interviewee went on to highlight the medical dangers of the profession, “The embalmer runs the risk of disease and blood poisoning… contagion and infection.”
On August 5th Grant’s remains were brought to City Hall in New York and displayed under the same catafalque used at Mt. McGregor. In the next two days, hundreds of thousands would pass by the casket and pay their final respects to the hero of the Union.
August 8th the casket was taken from City Hall to begin the final procession to Riverside Park. Undertaker Merritt had contracted for some 500 carriages for dignitaries and a horse-drawn funeral car pulled by twenty-four black horses to transport the casket to the final resting place. All told the funeral bill from Merritt to the federal government was over $14,000. With the knowledge of the attempted grave-robbing of former President Lincoln nine years before still fresh, a special steel case was created by the Franklin Iron Works in Troy, NY to protect the general’s remains. Upon arriving at Riverside Park Grant’s casket was first to be sealed in a lead-lined cedar case with heavy nickel corners which in turn was to be placed inside the steel case which rested on two marble blocks within his temporary brick tomb.
Work went on for the next twelve years to construct the 150-foot tall granite and marble mausoleum to hold the General’s remains. When finished in 1897 Grant’s casket was transferred under the supervision of yet another undertaker, James Quinn of J. Edward Winterbottom & Co., to an 8.5-ton sarcophagus of polished Wisconsin red granite in the lower atrium of the tomb. Five years later Grant would be joined by his wife Julia who would rest in an almost identical sarcophagus next to her husband.
On August 16th, 1885 Fred Grant would write to Felix Sullivan and acknowledge his vital role in the final preparations stating "Accept the thanks of our family for your services in the sad duty of Embalming my Father." In the modern-day many still rely on funeral homes who employ those trained in the mortician trade to prepare the remains of loved ones in a way that allows those that care to mourn them. Their trade may not be everyone’s ideal career or one that is discussed often, nevertheless, their work remains a necessary undertaking.
The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant
The Captain Departs by Thomas Pitkin 1973
Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Flood 2011
The President Is Dead!: The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and Beyond by Louis Picone 2016
History of Embalming and Restorative Arts by Valerie Wohl
Modern Embalming The Indianapolis Journal 8/3/1885
Funeral Paraphernalia The Midland Journal 8/14/1885
The Art of Embalming The Watertown Republican 8/26/1885
Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice by Robert G. Mayer 1987
Modern Embalming The Evening Herald (Syracuse) 8/13/1885
Embalming and the Civil War from The National Museum of Civil War Medicine 2016