The Egyptians refined the ancient practice of embalming from c.1550–1069 BC. By the mid 19th century it was readily available in other parts of the world. Europe and big cities in the northeastern part of the U.S. offered this service. During the American Civil War (1861–65) the culture of death transformed with the expanded use of embalming. More than a half a million soldiers died on the battlefields hundreds of miles away from their grieving families. Almost all of these bereaved families wanted to bring their loved ones back home for burial. They were willing to pay to have them in a state of preservation. It was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. The handling of the dead became a regulated, mainstream industry.
A Family Affair in New Mexico
The science of embalming was available in Albuquerque and Santa Fe as early as 1848. But most of the Hispanic communities through the mid-1940s provided the preparation and the burial of a loved. The community believed that caring for the dead was the responsibility of the family. If the deceased had no family then the community would pitch in to help out.
An Industry Takes Root
As the Anglo population continued to grow funeral practices began to change in New Mexico’s larger towns. Funeral goods such as coffins and headstones arrived from the east on the Santa Fe Trail. Funeral homes opened offering the science of embalming. The process offered a way of preserving a loved one for a final visit with the family. That’s when the tradition of carrying for the dead at home fell out of fashion. Advertisements in Spanish promoting “Undertaker Services” began to appear in daily newspapers. By the mid-twentieth century the funeral industry became a part of everyday life. Aggressive marketing tactics conveyed the idea that caring for the dead was unseemly and best left to professionals.