Preserving human remains is as much an art as it is a job. The Egyptians perfected their own version thousands of years ago, as did the Incas in Peru and the ancient Chinese. The first modern-day embalming was invented in the 1860s, as the bodies of fallen Civil War soldiers were sent home for burial. It was around that time that the Fernald family, based in eastern Maine for generations, got their start in the funeral business — then called undertaking.
Earlier this year, when Jim Fernald of Brookings-Smith Funeral Home in Bangor opened up his great-great-grandfather Abraham C. Fernald’s surgical embalming kit, he was amazed to see it in near-perfect condition. The kit, which dates from at least 1865, looked the same as when his grandfather last used it sometime in the mid-20th century — every long steel draining tube, every injector needle, every hand pump and glass jar tucked neatly away in a large, brown leather case. Even the containers of 150-year-old preserving chemicals were intact.
“It was as if he put it away, ready to be used for the next time, and then never touched it again,” said Fernald. “Everything was pretty meticulously cared for. It hadn’t been touched in decades.”
Fernald, a fifth generation funeral director, had done some looking around in the storage facilities of Brookings-Smith and in the Jordan Fernald Funeral Homes in Hancock County, both of which are owned by members of the same family. His friend, Dana Lippett, curator of the Bangor Museum & Center for History, had hatched a plan for a gruesomely fun Halloween event — and combined, they had a wealth of antique funeral ephemera.
“We just kept it around,” said Fernald. “We always wanted to understand the history of our profession, and we certainly didn’t want to get rid of it.”
Over the past few months, Lippett and Fernald have been collaborating on this weekend’s Halloween event “Embalming and Edgar Allen Poe.” The event is a two-part program featuring a talk by Lippett on Victorian-era embalming techniques and funeral traditions, and a theatrical reading by local actor Ben Layman of Poe’s short horror story “The Premature Burial.” There are two programs set for 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the historic Thomas A. Hill House at the corner of High and Union streets in Bangor; admission is $10.
Lippett got part of her inspiration from the Halloween events held yearly at the Victoria Mansion in Portland — but the majority of the work and ideas was a collaboration with Fernald, who put together the presentation highlighting the antique funeral collection.
“Once I’d talked to Jim about it, it kind of snowballed from there,” said Lippett. “We’ve got all this great antique funeral clothing and jewelry in our collection to go with it. It’s a pretty unique event. I’ve learned so much. I feel like I’ve learned how to embalm someone. Not that I’d do that anytime soon.”
Today’s embalming processes are modernized and are much cleaner, and the use of dangerous preservative chemicals such as mercury and arsenic were banned decades ago. But much of the basic work that goes into embalming has remained the same as it was 150 years ago. The blood is drained and the veins and arteries are filled with chemicals. The body is made up to look presentable and reconstruction is done, if needed.
What has changed are the places in which the work is done. In the 1870s, the remains were prepared in the home, where the wake also was held. To that end, most embalming equipment was portable. Fernald is in possession of a folding cooling table, on which undertakers would place the remains of the deceased to prepare for embalming — right in the house in which the person had died.
“People were accustomed to having all of this happen in their homes,” said Fernald. “The actual funeral would usually be held in a church, but everything else occurred right in people’s homes. Funeral directors of the time had to bring everything with them.”
The embalming kit is another example of that. All the various injector needles, pumps and draining devices fit perfectly into the big case. Fernald also has a case for the cosmetics used to make a body look presentable for viewing, which in those days was almost always open casket. An undertaker would arrive a day or two after someone had died, prepare the body in the home, and then put the body back into the bed to wait until the viewing was to be held.
“The family was much more involved in the entire process. The community was a part of the end of life,” said Fernald. “I think undertakers in those days were much more akin to hospice workers today. They helped people go through the process.”
In addition to the tools, Fernald has a 19th century folding kneeling platform set up, draped in purple velvet, which would be put next to the casket for grieving friends and family to see the remains. A tiny casket also is on display, as infant and child mortality was much, much higher in Victorian times than it is today. A manne-quin dressed in widow’s weeds — the head-to-toe-black dress, hat and veil that widows were expected to wear for two years after a husband died — sits next to the casket, as if she’s mourning over her imaginary child.
In the parlor room of the Hill House is a display of jewelry made from human hair, collected by families from the remains of their loved ones, as keepsakes. There’s also post-mortem photographs and paintings, at the time a common way to commemorate a loved one who had passed on. In another room is a wicker casket, which acted as a stretcher of sorts for transporting people that did not die at home — the pictures of the Brady Gang shooting in 1932 show Brady and company lying in several similar wicker caskets.
It’s a rather macabre display, certainly — but it’s also a fascinating look into how our culture has mourned, honored and celebrated it’s dead over the centuries.
“Someone once said, ‘You can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its dead,’” said Lippett. “I think this shows that, at least in the 19th century, we were pretty nice people.”
It’s also a squirm-inducing, shivery bit of Halloween fun. Looking at the embalming kit, you can’t help but think about it actually being used.
“This is also a haunted house, since Samuel Dale, or perhaps his wife, supposedly haunt it,” said Lippett, referring to the mayor of Bangor in the 1860s, who died in the Thomas A. Hill House in 1871. “It could be interesting to see what happens during the program. It could get a little creepy.”
“Embalming and Edgar Allen Poe” presentations are Friday and Saturday, Oct. 29 and 30, at the Bangor History Museum’s Thomas A. Hill House. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., with the program beginning at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10, and reservations are strongly encouraged, as space is limited to 50 people per night. For information, call 942-5766 or visit www.bangormuseum.com