We’re kicking off the Halloween season with a screening of Frank Kapra’s 1944 film, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Friday, October 4th at sundown. As lead characters Abbey and Martha Brewster lure poor bachelors to their death by slipping arsenic and other toxins into cups of elderberry wine, we are reminded of the prominent correlation between arsenic and old cemeteries. Throughout the 19th century the chemical was heavily used in the embalming process for dead bodies. Although the poisonous effects of arsenic are now common knowledge, its popularity during the 19th century is linked to current public health concerns surrounding historic cemeteries.
Arsenic became a popular ingredient in embalming fluid during the United States Civil War as it was realized that embalming with chemical fluid (as opposed to putting bodies over ice) allowed the bodies of fallen soldiers to be sent back to their loved ones without decaying. Embalming fluid could be used for immersion or be injected into veins. Recipes for embalming fluid varied and the amount of arsenic used per body ranged from a few ounces to as much as 12 pounds.[i] Morticians guarded their formula but common recipes were found in trade books of the period such as “The Era Formulary.” These books listed a variety of formulas, some of which included arsenic and some that did not. Subsequently the book lists short instructions for how to mix and administer the fluid.
As successful as the preservative was, health problems associated with arsenic were quickly realized. By the turn of the 20th century large numbers of embalmers had been poisoned or killed by the toxicity of arsenic and it was quickly banned from mortuary use. Today, arsenic is “a carcinogen that’s associated with skin, lung, bladder and liver cancers.”[ii] Scientists have also come to realize that while bodies decompose, the arsenic in the embalming fluid does not. It was discovered that as decaying bodies are exposed to water some of the arsenic from the embalming fluid will leach from the body and escape into the soil[iii], potentially contaminating ground water supplies especially in rural areas where water is sourced from a well. This problem is prevalent in Civil War era cemeteries because of the large volume of bodies that were embalmed with arsenic at the time.
A study on a Civil War era cemetery by Hamilton College in Clinton, New York showed arsenic levels in the down-gradient of ground water and found trace amounts of arsenic, but none in the surface level groundwater implying that the arsenic may have come from the bodies in the cemetery.[iv] At The Woodlands a study conducted by a researcher working with the University of Pennsylvania tested the grounds for lead as part of a greater initiative in the city of Philadelphia. Inadvertently, the testing revealed that there were some trace amounts of arsenic in a few of the soil samples taken along the running trail that circumscribes the cemetery. This should be of no surprise as The Woodlands was founded in 1840, just before the civil war, and is the resting place for thousands of people buried before the turn of the 20th century. The test results are evidence of The Woodland’s civil war era existence and should not cause any alarm to the public who occupy the space daily. The Woodlands has also tapped trees for sap and upon testing it found no traces of arsenic.
Beyond use of embalming, arsenic was also prevalent in the 19th century architecture scene. Green paints used as the finish on the windows and shutters of many 19th century houses were colored with arsenic which served as a bug repellent for living spaces. Sickness caused by the pealing arsenic paint corresponded to the rise in public awareness of lead toxicity and other public health risks associated with paint in general such as lead toxicity. Green window shutters are seen as a trend within historic architecture that still manifests on many homes today. However, many aren’t aware of the origin of the trend, its’ practical application and related health risks.
The use of arsenic in embalming fluid also made it difficult for officials to solve certain murder cases. After a body was embalmed with arsenic based fluid it was almost impossible to know whether or not someone had been killed by arsenic poisoning[v] as opposed to natural causes. Maybe Abbey and Martha were on to something, had they been up to their tricks a century earlier their operation would have been fool proof!
Contemporary embalming fluids primarily use formaldehyde. The strong chemical scent of which many of us may associate with the frog we had to dissect in middle school. Studies show that formaldehyde is also a carcinogen but many funeral directors continue to use the substance to maintain their reputations and excellent embalming services.[vi] Pushes have been made to market embalming formulas that do not include formaldehyde but the consensus seems to be that nothing works as well. Although funeral homes have improved ventilation systems and increased protective gear needed for the embalming process, health risks still remain.
Despite the toxicity involved with the embalming process historically and currently, its lasting popularity is a testament to the importance many people place on preserving the dead. The preservation of the human body is an ancient practice most famously associated with mummification in the Egyptian Empire, and is still a tradition that is applied in contemporary funerary customs. Many religions use open casket ceremonies in the practice of their beliefs, which requires that the body be as intact as possible for mourners to come and pay their respects. The treatment of the dead through the plethora of spiritual practices is a blog post for another time, but it’s a prominent reason for the lasting legacy and continued need for embalming fluids.
Written by: Kathie Brill
[i] Bloudoff-Indelicato, Mollie. “Arsenic and Old Graves: Civil War-Era Cemeteries May Be Leaking Toxins.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, October 30, 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/arsenic-and-old-graves-civil-war-era-cemeteries-may-be-leaking-toxins-180957115/#8voveVgMoBDFIZT8.99.
[iii] Ogden Publications, Inc. “Arsenic Contamination in Graveyards: How the Dead Are Hurting the Environment - Environment - Utne Reader.” Utne. Accessed September 27, 2019. https://www.utne.com/environment/arsenic-contamination-ze0z1306zpit.
[vi] Martin, Andrew. “Despite Risk, Embalmers Still Embrace Preservative.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 20, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/business/despite-cancer-risk-embalmers-stay-with-formaldehyde.html.