Shivers ran down the collective spine of visitors, and at least one person took several steps back, and stayed a safe distance away. What scared the history out of these participants in a Behind-the-Scenes tour at the Connecticut Historical Society one Saturday early in October? The Corpse Preserver, a coffin-shaped contraption raised on ornate metal legs, which was designed to preserve bodies and allow them to be viewed by mourners.
The corpse preserver would be filled with ice to chill the body. The upper section was made from galvanized tin and lined with insulating horse hair. The body itself was placed in the lower half of the device, and a viewing window allowed mourners a peak at the dear departed.
The 1876 catalog of C. Rogers & Co. of West Meriden, Connecticut features a full-page entry for corpse preservers and illustrates just how they were used. The corpse preserver at CHS likely dates from this same period, and shows how technology of the 1870s answered the need for preserving bodies for funeral rights in an age when embalming was not universally available.
The influx of immigrants with traditions of mourning that often lasted several days suggests a ready market for such devices. Once featured in a display in a family-run funeral home in Middletown, Connecticut, the corpse preserver at the Connecticut Historical Society now lurks in a closed storage area not normally accessible to the public, waiting to creep out visitors who venture behind the scenes!
Behind-the-Scenes tours are offered regularly at CHS. The next tour will be “Behind-the-Scenes: A Veteran's Day Remembrance of Military History at the CHS” on Saturday November 9 at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm.