Thanks to You, John Wilkes Booth

Caleb Wilde is a sixth-generation licensed funeral director and embalmer in Pennsylvania. You wouldn’t think we’d get along, what with all my wacky first-generation West Coast alternative funeral ideas. But Caleb is sufficiently weird, sufficiently open to an evolving death industry, and a real professional. You can find his website here, and follow him on Twitter.

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Thinking about counterfactuals can produce maddening entertainment, especially when it comes to one’s own personal existence.

What happens if my dad didn’t spill that Coca-Cola on my mother some 40 years ago on their first date? Was that the attachment trigger that eventually produced me?

Would I exist if Columbus hadn’t sailed the ocean blue in 1492?

If cats were never domesticated, would the Internet even exist?

These. Unanswerable. All.

I do know one thing: my present existence is indebted to John Wilkes Booth.

Caleb and John

Johnny B. and me

I’m the love child of a Romeo and Juliet-type romance. My dad’s family owned one funeral home and my mother’s family owned the other funeral home across town. Dad was the fifth-generation funeral director on the Wilde side and mom would’ve been the fourth generation on the Brown side.

With my progenitors overexposure to embalming fluid, I used to think I’d develop some genetically altered mutant power. Like a psychic embalming power that enabled me to embalm my enemies through my mind energy. Think Professor X with embalming fluid.As an adult, I realize that instead of a mutant power I’ll probably just receive an early case of cancer.

Before Booth killed Lincoln, the first generation of Wildes (we emigrated from England) maintained a small “cabinet shop,” which built caskets, dining room tables, beds and the occasional wooden dildo. We’d help the family prepare the deceased and then let them finish the course of funeralization. It was – way back in the 1850s – very much a natural burial. The ones who took care of the deceased in life were also able to do so in death.

After Lincoln’s assassination, his embalmed corpse was paraded by train throughout the states, making stops in 12 major cities, where his body was put on display for public viewing; and passing through a total of 444 communities. A bereaved nation found an outlet for their grief, and their psyche bonded to this newfangled process called embalming. Perhaps there’s no stronger bond than a grief bond; and, whether rational or not, this bond to embalming soon created the American way of death.

Funeral Engine

The Lincoln Funeral Engine

With the industrialization of furniture making, and the new demand for embalming, we adapted to the market and became full-time undertakers. By 1898, the demand produced a “funeral school” in nearby Philadelphia. My great grandfather enrolled in 1910, and by 1912 we were charging $5.00 for pumping formaldehyde through the arterial system of our dead customers.

Casket Catalogues

Some casket snapshots from a 1910 casket catalog that we still have in our possession. 

We moved our small business to a larger town to the east and operated out of a row home. We’d go to the deceased’s house to embalm, build the deceased a casket and help direct the ensuing home funeral.

Gravity Embalmer

This is the gravity embalmer that we would have used when embalming the deceased at their home. 

In 1928, we bought a large home and we began to offer “our” home for funerals, thus relieving families of “sad associations” during the funeral ceremonies. We advertised “Homelike Surroundings – No Charge for Use of Home.”

And here I am, the sixth generation of licensed Wilde funeral directors, still working in the same home we purchased in 1928. Once a fledgling cabinetry shop, we are now a very small part of a 20-billion-dollar national industry.

Back to counterfactuals.

What would funerals look like if John Wilkes Booth had missed?

Would the “traditional American funeral” be the entrenched tradition?

Would we need the clarion call of the Order of the Good Death?

If she wasn’t shrouding bodies, would Caitlin be shrouding … cats? Oh … wait … yes, she does shroud felines.

I probably wouldn’t exist without John Wilkes Booth; but that’s okay, I wouldn’t know the difference. Perhaps, though, we wouldn’t have industrialized death. Perhaps we’d have a better, more comfortable relationship with dying and death. Perhaps there’d be no need for the death “professionals.” Perhaps we’d be more holistic people, having a better perspective on death and a better appreciation for life.

But reality is what it is and those counterfactuals don’t exist. I’m here. You’re here. And although the American way of death is waning, it’s here too, depriving us — to one degree or another — of the life to be found in death and dying.

Thanks to you, John Wilkes Booth, we’re still fighting the effects of the Civil War.

 

 

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  • well now its even farther removed with cremation. Since in peoples eyes thats the cheapest way to go. I serisouly doubt taking your loved ones body home and having a home funeral will catch on. Since people dont want to deal and more intimate with death they want to forget memorialize and then forget. Like this website I want too and we had a discussion about the viewing of the body and the privacy of the family not wanting people to see the body and view it and know where that person was going to be buried.

  • My daughter, who is a Muslim (I am not) has agreed to bury me the old way with no embalming. It will be a home burial with a shroud in my home village’s cemetery, where my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents – among other relatives, friends, and neighbors are already buried. Across the field from our family’s homestead. My father and grandfather used to be the cemetery’s caretaker. I am very happy knowing my body’s last resting place will be there…

  • In the 1800’s, people also had no idea about germs (airborn or otherwise), but today’s folks have germaphobia! We are terrified about a single mouse in the house let alone a dead body! We are scared of breathing smoke from neighbors’ cigarettes, barbecues, and chimneys –can you imagine how some people would feel about the chemicals needed to embalm a person? In this regard, many do not want a home funeral for themselves or their family. Death is seen as unclean; decomposition is seen as “nasty” rather than a normal process of nature. It’s a sad state in many ways. We don’t give enough time for grief, or to truly find ways to deal with grief as a funeral ultimately is, and home funeral even more so. Makes me think that humans are in some ways emotionally unstable in how we deal with grief and death. I think we should give the human body some deep dignity by respecting it. Yet, in some ways, turning away from home funerals, or embalming for that matter, is also healthy –we are now quicker to see that the body was just a shell and not the soul. I don’t mean “soul” in the religious way, I mean that it was not the person’s essence. By quickly disposing of the shell, we have given ourselves more quality time to think about the person’s true self and meaning, and how we will miss them (not to mention the impact they may have had on our lives) while they were with us on earth. Without a body to fuss over, we have allowed ourselves to spend more time to discuss the deceased’s impacts on us –to acknowledge their true essence. That is not all bad.

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      did you hear about Cremains? there worse since cremains they say clog planes if the cremains are not dumped correctly out the plane and laws are in place where you have to be a certain distance from the pier or mountains but people still are being cremated and the majority of the time the cremains are all over the place

    • Dana

      I’m not scared of breathing cigarette smoke but I don’t want to breathe it. If you want to be a gigantic dummy and take up a tobacco habit, that’s your problem. Don’t make it my problem too. But that’s what you’d be doing if you lit up around me. Even if it’s a vapor cigarette, you’re still putting your drug into the air.

      I don’t agree with you that a body is just a shell. I learned a long time ago that people’s personalities can fundamentally change if they suffer certain types of brain injuries. If there truly is a soul separate from the body that’s just taking a ride in it, or an “essence” doing the same as you put it, that shouldn’t happen. Ever. I think we ARE our bodies, and that doesn’t bother me one bit. Maybe if we all understood that we are our bodies, not only would we take better care of our own, we wouldn’t be so quick to disrespect other people’s either.