Who's Buried in Grants Tomb?
by Monica Finch

Taken from the August 1999 issue of American Funeral Director


Whos buried in Grants Tomb? We all know that old chestnut. But what isnt known is the integral role a small upstate New York funeral parlor played when the former Civil War general and two-term president died on July 23, 1885.

In June 1885, Ulysses S. Grant came to live out his final days at a cottage on Mount McGregor. His doctors had hoped the clean air of the Adirondack foothills surrounding Saratoga would ease the generals suffering from throat cancer. After his presidency and a series of disastrous investments, Grant declared bankruptcy. Now at the end of his life, he used whatever energy reserves he had left to finish his Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885-1886), which focused mainly on the Civil War. He hoped he could posthumously support his wife and four children on the royalties generated by the books publication. Mark Twain, Grants friend, had agreed to publish the memoirs. (Grant died a week after completing the manuscript.) The book was a tremendous success and remains to this day one of the periods most authoritative accounts.

Within hours of Grants death, the local undertaker, Ebenezer Holmes, proprietor of Holmes & Co. on Church Street in Saratoga, was summoned to the cottage. The Grants also called upon the services of the Rev. Stephen J. Merritt, a New York City clergyman/undertaker undertaker to celebrities and Manhattans upper classes. However, until Merritts arrival, Holmes was the undertaker of the hour. He brought with him his selected ice refrigeration casket, which he designed and had patented in 1878. The patent title of his invention read, the Improvement in Corpse Coolers or Caskets. Grants body was placed in the ice casket until it was embalmed. Since the late 1870s, Holmes had used his special casket in the Saratoga Springs area with great success. The casket was an oak-framed rectangular table on a wicker platform and below that, a lead-lined receptacle to hold ice.

Along with Holmes and his ice casket came his young apprentice, the cabinet-maker and aspiring undertaker, William Burke. As a carpenter, Burke had worked on the construction of the Grant cottage. For a brief time, Burke was Holmes partner. In 1893, Burke founded his own funeral business, William J. Burke & Sons, which was operated by his direct descendants until the last of the line, James Burke, died in 1987. To this day, the business remains in operation on Broadway in Saratoga Springs.

The earliest Burke archives include Holmes records. A call book has on page 50 the generals name, age, and date of death recorded in immaculate Victorian script. The funeral home also has a collection of antique coffin hardware, prototypes of those used on Grants coffin. Among the other artifacts is antique embalming equipment, which is stored in an old brown leather satchel that looks like an over-sized doctors bag.

Grant left explicit instructions. He wanted his body embalmed so the funeral would not have to be rushed because of the intense summer heat. And that summer was inordinately hot and humid, even in the Adirondacks. A little more than two weeks would pass between the day Grant died, July 23, and the final service in New York City on Aug. 8. The need was urgent to use every and all resources available to keep the body from decomposing. Holmes & Co., under the supervision of Grants doctors, performed the embalming, which took two days. Grants body lay in state at the cottage until the funeral service there on Aug. 4. From a newspaper account of the day, Ebenezer Holmes was quite proud of his handiwork and reported that the deep lines and furrows on Grants face disappeared after the process. One of the doctors trumpeted, the body is in a wonderful state of preservation and will retain it in a very natural condition... In subsequent newspaper interviews, the embalmers boasted of longer preservation time, one said the preservation would last up to six months. After embalming, the body was placed in the ice casket as an extra measure. The polished red cedar coffin, which was being shipped by rail from Rochester, would not arrive until July 29.

In an era when grave-robbing was not uncommon, the Grant family was also concerned about securing the generals remains. Another upstate company owned by a Patrick Cregan of Troy, had recently patented a ghoul and burglar-proof metal air-tight burial vault. The Grants immediately purchased this 19th century state-of-the-art technology to safeguard the generals coffin.

After the viewing and services at the Mount McGregor cottage, Grants body was transported by train to Albany. At the state capital, there was public viewing for three nights and two days. Another train brought the body to New York City, where on Aug. 8, the third and final service was conducted. Historically, there was always controversy surrounding Grants embalming. It was reported that two of the generals brothers were unnerved by the bodys appearance when they viewed it in Albany. In the Victorian era, a time commonly thought of as prim and austere, it was interesting to read contemporary newspaper stories that reflected the publics morbid concern over rumors of the bodys rapid decomposition. Some of those published newspaper stories were quite graphic and detailed in describing the state of the body surprisingly clinical in an era when one might think such indelicate topics would not be fodder for polite public discourse.

After the body arrived in New York City, Merritt worked to quell growing rumors about its deterioration. He invited reporters to a private viewing to prove the body was in good condition. However, on the same day of Merritts published assurances, another newspaper story ran counter to it. It stated that the flesh looked puffy and the skin took on loosely...the nose contracted slightly... dark rings are readily observable about the eyes...the temple shows signs of discoloration...a few slight touches with a stick of paint along with white powder hid the discolored spots immediately but did not obliterate them. Apparently there were problems with the procedure right from the outset. The primitive electrical lighting in the cottage was poor when the embalming was done and the generals skin appeared discolored. The upstate embalming team had to apply bleaching solution on July 30 before the body was initially placed on public display in the cottage.

Nearly a century later, a rumor persisted that Holmes & Co. had blundered in mixing the embalming chemicals and caused the former Presidents skin to turn black. At the time of the incident, the East Coast press picked up on this rumor and wrote a series of scathing articles about the embalmers. These stories were subsequently circulated nationwide. The public was scandalized that its war hero and former president could be so desecrated in death. Merritt quickly did a bit of touching-up while in Albany, especially after the Grant brothers discomfort. It was reported that the train ride had somewhat disheveled the body. But perhaps Merritt had to do more than the newspapers reported.

Finally, after much ceremony and pageantry, the Hero of the Civil War was safely ensconced in a temporary tomb near the construction site of his final resting place. Alas, the general was to wait another 12 years before the proverbial Grants Tomb in Manhattans Riverside Park was completed and his long journey finally ended. Apparently the furor over the embalming that dogged the entire Grant affair erupted into litigation. Holmes and Merritt became embroiled in a lawsuit over the payment of a bill for $68. The outcome was not made known. Whatever happened during the Grant affair may be left to speculation. Who, if anyone, was at blame? Maybe it was just a matter of nature still having an edge over the unrefined embalming process when, unfortunately, the eyes of the world were watching.

Monica Finch offers her thanks to the following contributors for their invaluable assistance: Mark Phillips at the Wm. J. Burke & Sons Funeral Home; the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage; the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs; and intrepid patent historian/researcher, Jim Bieberich.

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