Friday, 17 June 2011

Waiting for the Embalming Process to Begin

It was a chance find. A piece of cloth and a small envelope of snapshots. Together, they revealed a little known episode of military history. This is what I know. The piece of white material is an arm band. It bears the letters C A M C and was worn by US servicemen and women working at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery.

The cemetery was first established in December 1943 on 30.5 acres of land donated by the University of Cambridge. It was selected as a permanent American Military Cemetery, not only because of its scenic grandeur, but also because a large proportion of American casualties occurred in this general area of East Anglia. The cemetery was not dedicated until July 1956.

It contains 3,809 headstones, with the remains of 3,812 servicemen, including airmen who died over Europe and sailors from North Atlantic convoys. What isn't well documented is that, with the Graves Registration unit based there, a team of uniformed embalmers worked tirelessly to 'prepare' the bodies for burial. This surprised me as I always imagined that the bodies - after all the accounting paperwork was processed and the personal effects collected - were simply placed into a coffin and buried with due military honours. How do I know this?

Well, the arm band came with a newspaper cutting and a number of photographs of the preparation room in the embalming huts. The cutting records that Technical Sgt Jimmy was based at the Cemetery and was a practising embalmer. Indeed, while there he was admitted to the British Institute of Embalmers.

Jimmy was born on 23 Feb 1914. He enlisted in Baltimore in April 1941 and his occupation was recorded as embalmer and undertaker. He died in Cumberland, MD aged 96 on 21 April 2010.

When you look at the photographs which are marked on the reverse with the words 'Prep. Room', you will notice all the paraphenalia hanging around including piping and hoses used in the process of embalming. If the white sheet draped over the embalming tables is raised, then a body is under the sheet awaiting preparation. When I look at them, it gives me the shivers.

Photograph: American Battle Monuments Commission
(courtesy of Creative Commons)

Download a copy of the 1945 Graves Registration Manual HERE. It is a fascinating document.

View or download the illustrated Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial Guide HERE

View a video of the Cemetery HERE


Charles Cowling said...

Spellbinding photos. Well sleuthed! I can't understand why the bodies were embalmed when there was no apparent need. Do you have an idea/theory?

Laurie said...

Hi Charles, I have just managed to download a pdf of the official history of the Grave Registration Service in the Second World. Apparently, embalming before burial took place, as a matter of course, in the mortuary units based at places like Cambridge. When D-Day came, the order went out that there was to be no embalming of US War Dead on the continent . . .

Charles Cowling said...

Right, so force of cultural habit. I wonder if they ever envied their Brit confreres' palaver-free approach to dead humans. Thanks, Laurie. There is something peculiarly captivating about this story - in a touching way.

TCasteel said...

It is a beautful cemetery. We have a relative buried there:
Thank you for your interesting post.
Theresa (Tangled Trees)

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