Crown Hill Notables: Dr. Daniel H. Prunk, Civil War Embalming Surgeon

The Life and Times of Dr. Daniel H. Prunk

Funeral Service History: Civil War Embalming Surgeon

By: Todd W. Van Beck

It would appear evident to most students of the Great American Civil War that every aspect, every nuance, and every minute detail of that defining moment in American history must have been analyzed, dissected, studied, written about, documented, spoken, lectured, and even preached about – but that is not necessarily the case.

The history of Civil War Embalming-Surgeons is a much neglected portion of American History. It is the hope of the author that this series will help correct this deficiency.

In the noble annals of funeral service history men who served as embalming surgeons in the American Civil War have been given an honored place of high recognition, and this is most meaningful and appropriate. Names such as Renouard, Sullivan, Clarke, Myers, Holmes, Cornelius, Greer, Bunnell, Brown, Alexander, Cattell, Hutton, Burr, Chamberlain, Scollay, Lyford, Cornelius and others have been given due recognition as pioneers not only in American practices of caring for the dead, but in the development and expansion of the Mortuary Science educational system which still functions and flourishes to this every day.

One of the members of the Embalming Surgeon Hall of Fame is a Indiana gentlemen by the name of Dr. Daniel H. Prunk, and this is his story.

Dr. Daniel H. Prunk’s activities during the Great American Civil War shows the manner in which practicing physicians entered the embalming profession as well as the actual method of operation and techniques of Civil War embalming and soldier grave registrations practices.

Let us begin.

Daniel H. Prunk (1829–1923) was born near Fincastle, Botetourt County, Virginia. His family later moved to Hennepin, Illinois, where he attended college at Mt. Palatine, Illinois, for one year and entered Rock River Seminary. From 1853–1856 he attended and graduated from Eclectic Medical Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to moving to Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1861, he practiced medicine in Cincinnati; Rockford, Illinois; and Princeton, Illinois. In September 1861, Prunk was appointed Assistant Surgeon in the 19th Indiana serving at the Marshall House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Apparently his wife’s poor health resulted in his return to Indianapolis in February 1862. Four months later, he was appointed to the position of assistant surgeon with the 20th Indiana at Harrison’s Landing, where he became ill and spent several months in a hospital in New York. Dr. Prunk was then assigned to the 3rd Corps Hospital in New York. Around July 1863, he was assigned as Acting Assistant Surgeon at the 2nd Division Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. At that time he became a specialist in the embalming and the returning of deceased Union soldiers to their homes. He discovered a new preservative and disinfectant that apparently improved the embalming process. Prunk then became a licensed embalmer and operated several embalming centers in Tennessee and Georgia. Since the Union Army did not pay for the embalming and the return of its dead, Prunk was able to operate these centers as private businesses. Prunk sold his embalming establishments after the war and returned to Indianapolis in early 1866 at which time he resumed his medical practice.

July of 1863 found the Indiana resident Dr. Daniel Prunk serving as an Acting Assistant Surgeon at the 2nd Division Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville was one of the epicenters in the history of the American Civil War. In fact only Virginia can claim more battles fought on her soil, and next was Tennessee.

Nashville was also a center for the expansion of the art and science of embalming simply because so many of the casualties of this bloody conflict ended up in the City of Nashville. Nashville changed hands several time between the Union and Confederate forces, and there was an undertaker by the name of W. R. Cornelius who had contracts with both sides throughout the war to care for the military dead.

Because of this reality of war it was in Nashville that Dr. Prunk also entered into the field of embalming and returning the deceased soldiers to their families and homes.

On October 1, 1863, Dr. Prunk sent this letter to Brigadier General Robert Granger, U.S.A., Post Commander, Nashville, Tennessee: “Sir: I do respectfully solicit the privilege of disinterring the bodies of deceased soldiers in the Nashville Cemetery and transporting them to their friends in the North.” On October 3, 1863, General Granger’s endorsement on Dr. Prunk’s letter states: “This permission is granted when the consent of the relatives is obtained.”

Another letter dated October 26th, 1863, addressed to Brigadier General Granger was written on Dr. Prunk’s behalf by Chief Medical Officer William Carroll, 2nd Division Hospital, Nashville: “Sir, the bearer, D. H. Prunk, M.D., who has for the past three months been on duty as Acting Assistant Surgeon, USA, in this hospital wishes to visit Chattanooga for the purpose of forwarding the bodies of deceased soldiers. Permit me to recommend him as one who will not abuse a pass granted for that purpose.”


Another letter dated November 18, 1863 at Nashville, and signed by W. Clendewin, Surgeon and Medical Inspector, stated, “I do hereby certify that I am familiar with Dr. Prunk’s method of embalming the dead and, in my opinion, it is in every respect equal to the method of Dr. Holmes or others, and has the advantage of cheapness and, moreover saves the expense of metallic coffins.”
One might well wonder how Dr. Prunk came by his embalming knowledge. He, like other physicians attending medical school, had some knowledge of the subject of embalming while pursuing the study of anatomy as it was customary for medical students themselves to prepare and preserve the cadavers that they were required to dissect in their Gross Anatomy classes.

Dr. Prunk also served in the Washington, D.C. area, which due to the presence of numerous foreign diplomates and ambassadors who upon their deaths needed embalming to be returned to their native land, Prunk would have been quite exposed to the celebrated pioneering work already being done by Dr. Thomas Holmes, Drs. William J. Bunnell, Charles DeCosta Brown, and Joseph Bell Alexander and others. Dr. Prunk may have even met and talked with these men and realizing the keen competition that existed in Washington, D.C. decided to locate West in Nashville, Tennessee where the field of war was less competitive for his embalming skills. Certainly Prunk’s professional story bears out the truth of this theory.

In Dr. Prunk’s biography published in “Pictorial and Biographical Memoirs of Indianapolis & Marion Co.”, 1893 gives an interesting account of Dr. Prunk: “During his leisure hours he had discovered a new preservative and disinfectant compound for embalming bodies, and he engaged in that business with a decided success during the remainder of the war, by permission of General George H. Thomas, having his headquarters at Nashville, with branches at Chattanooga, Knoxville, Dalton, Atlanta, Marietta and Huntsville. He rendered valuable service to the remains of General McPherson and other fallen heroes during the Georgia campaign.”

Obviously Dr. Prunk not only held impressive medical and embalming skills, but he was also a business entrepreneur by expanding his embalming services throughout the war torn south.

On December 23, 1863, Dr. Prunk wrote to Brigadier General Whipple, Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, “I do most respectfully solicit the privilege of embalming deceased soldiers in this department, with the permission of their friends and forward the same to the North.”

On December 24, 1863, a reply was received from the office of Provost Marshall General, Headquarters of the Department of the Cumberland, “Dr. D.H. Prunk, is hereby given permission to open an establishment in Chattanooga for the purpose of embalming the bodies of deceased officers and soldiers. He will furnish a list of his prices to be charged for the work to the Provost Marshall General, the Medical Director of the Department and the Post Provost Marshall.”

This last sentence together with Dr. Barnes suggestions about the furnishing of a bond to ensure performance form the basic portions of the Army General Order which would be finally issued in April of 1865.

By January of 1864, Dr. Prunk was in active operation, for on the 1st of January, 1864 he wrote to Lieutenant Colonel William M. Wiles, Provost Marshall, Chattanooga, Tennessee, “I respectfully solicit permission to import one carboy of embalming fluid and twenty pounds of Nitrate of Potassa.” This endorsement states, “Approved, shipment not to interfere with government transportation.”

On January 6, 1865, Dr. Prunk wrote to the Provost Marshall at Nashville, signing the letter as Embalmer. “Permission to establish an embalming office at Taspoint (Georgia, now within Atlanta city limits) and transportation for twelve metallic burial cases (coffins) from Cincinnati per week for the purpose of encasing the bodies of officers and soldiers is respectfully asked, Dr. D. H. Prunk, Embalmer.” The endorsement dates January 7, 1865 reads, “approved, treasury regulations being complied with and government transportation not being interfered with.”

The now famous requirement for an embalmers license began in the American Civil War. By April of 1865 the War Department required licensing of all embalmers to practice in their military commands and the posting of a bond to ensure compliance with the General Order 39. This is the first time in history that regulations and qualifications for the licensing of embalmers were enacted in the United States.

The office of the Provost Marshall in Nashville issued on April 25, 1865 an embalmers license to Dr. Prunk. It reads: “To whom it may concern D. H. Prunk of Davidson County and State of Tennessee having filed in this office his bond with his responsible sureties in the penal sum of one thousand dollars for the faithful compliance with orders from the office of the Provost Marshall General Department of the Cumberland, Concerning embalmers and undertakers date April 8, 1865 is hereby licensed and authorized to act as embalmer and undertaker within the Department of Cumberland. This license and authority is not transferable and is subject to revocation at the will of the Provost Marshall General of said Department.”

If an American soldier dies under what is termed “active duty death” the United States government has very generous benefits and services which are rendered basically free to the bereaved family of the fallen warrior. This was not the case in the American Civil War.
During the American Civil War the friends and/or relatives of the decease soldier were solely responsible, financially and legally for bringing the war dead back home for a burial. It was the responsibility of the bereaved family to also contact the embalmer/undertaker to see that these services were furnished.

Many undertakers actually had a type of “identification dog tag” stamped in metal that soldiers would wear around their necks in battle with the hope that if and when they were killed some good Samaritan would telegraph the particular undertaker whose name was stamped on the identification medallion.

Indianapolis he engaged in the practice of medicine and left no evidence of continuing his career as an embalmer, even though he was a neighbor of undertaker at Mr. William Weaver. It was the undertaking firm of Weaver & William who had charge of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral services with the assassinated President’s remains traveled through Indianapolis on the journey back to Springfield.
Dr. Daniel H. Prunk spent the remainder of his life working as a physician in Indianapolis. Dr. Prunk died on August 2, 1923 at the ripe old age of 93 years, 8 month, and 30 days. He was buried in the world famous Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Even though Dr. Prunk and William Weaver were neighbors, and even though the Weaver & Williams Undertakers had conducted the Indianapolis funeral for President Abraham Lincoln, when Dr. Prunk died William Weaver was long retired, the firm of Weaver & Williams shut down, and Mr. Weaver was an old man..

Dr. Prunk was buried on August 4, 1923. The funeral was conducted by, at the time, the most prominent undertaking establishment in Indianapolis at the time – Kregelo & Bailey. The Kregelo Undertaking establishment was founded by Charles E. Kregelo, who in 1901 had the honor of conducting the funeral of President Benjamin Harrison, who is also buried on the sacred grounds of Crown Hill.

For the entire article written by Todd Van Beck, click here.



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