One of the issues facing newly freed men and women was how to make a living in a world that had never paid them a living wage for their contributions. Even the USCT initially were paid less than white soldiers, and contraband labor was not paid at all. One of the African-American men who not only contributed to efforts during the Civil War but was instrumental in developing the African-American-based business model was simply known as Prince Greer.
What we might recognize as proto-modern embalming techniques were introduced during and after the Civil War. Embalmers often followed both armies, hoping to profit from the misfortune of others. A number of Union soldiers or their families pre-paid for embalming and shipment back North in the event of a soldier’s death in the war. After a battle, especially in the East, black soldiers were recruited to bury the dead and keep records of burial sites for soldiers killed in combat. Black assistants to doctors were trained in embalming and conducted much of this work.
One particularly interesting example is that of Prince Greer, America’s first African American embalmer. He was the personal slave of a Confederate cavalry officer who was killed in Tennessee. Greer took it upon himself to return the body of his former master to his estate and contacted a Nashville undertaker, Dr. W. P. Cornelius, for help in this endeavor. Cornelius embalmed the officer, and his body was shipped back to Texas, but during this time Cornelius’ current assistant, a Dr. Lewis, decided that embalming was not quite the job he wanted. Upon the departure of Lewis, Prince Greer stepped forward. He offered to learn the embalming trade in exchange for room and board, and Cornelius was glad to have him. Greer became the first recorded embalmer of color in the United States.
William R. Cornelius, Greer’s employer, was an interesting man in his own right. Originally from Pennsylvania, he was apprenticed as a carpenter and furniture maker. During this time he also learned how to make coffins. By 1849 he had moved to Nashville, TN and had become the sole proprietor of the firm McComb and Carson, which focused exclusively on undertaking. He won a contract to bury the Confederate dead and when the Union army arrived in 1862, he got a contract to bury the Union dead at the same terms. He opened branch establishments in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Stevenson, Huntsville, and Bridgeport, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia. He claimed to have buried or shipped to their homes over 33,000 remains by the end of the war:
I suppose I embalmed and had embalmed some 3,000-3,500 soldiers and employees of the U.S. Army. Embalming was not introduced until after the Confederate Army left, so I did not embalm any Confederates. I embalmed and shipped General McPherson, General Scott and General Garesché. The latter had his head shot clear off. I shipped nearly all of the Anderson cavalry to Philadelphia at one time. After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels,majors, captains and privates by carloads some days.
The work was overwhelming for one man and the addition of an eager pupil such as Prince Greer was a welcome boon. Cornelius trained Greer to perform the arterial embalming method perfected by Dr. Thomas Holmes, of Washington. Cornelius bragged about his star pupil:
Prince Greer appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he himself became an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war and was very successful at it. It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone. He was always careful, always . . . coming to me in a difficult case. He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.
Once the Civil War was over, embalming remained an intrinsic part of the burial process. Undertaking now required a higher level of skill, and trade schools and universities began offering mortuary science as a concentration. Along with learning embalming techniques, morticians were also taught how to touch up bodies for viewing and how to counsel grieving families. Undertaking evolved from a skilled trade to a profession, and with this came economic and social status, making it a promising opportunity for blacks as well as whites. Almost at once, these services became segregated. While socially despicable, this was sometimes economical for black undertakers, who were able to corner the market on African American burials. It also meant that undertaking became one of the few professions open to blacks at a time when they were largely relegated to unskilled labor. With white undertakers unwilling to care for black bodies in more than a passing way, grieving families turned to their own in the hopes of a dignified homecoming. By the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League tried to work against these beliefs by encouraging blacks to keep their money within the black community.
The combination of experiences with slave funerals, Civil War burials, and embalming prepared African-Americans to become pioneering funeral service professionals. Prince Greer was an expert embalmer during and after the Civil War and was the first historically recorded African-American to hold such a position. Funeral parlors were among the first businesses opened by blacks after slavery was abolished and undertaking was a promising profession for any aspiring black entrepreneur. The funeral director was a well-respected figure, and the funeral home was a place of safety for the black community, away from prying eyes and ears. It is not known when Prince Greer discontinued his business, but without his example, there may have been many fewer African-American undertakers, morticians, and embalmers making their living through Reconstruction and into the future.