What’s your favorite nickname for our 16th President? “Honest Abe”? “The Great Emancipator”? “Spotty”? (this more unusual nickname is reflective of his verbal contradictions when speaking). However you know him, there is no denying that Abraham Lincoln had an extraordinary impact on the growth of the United States into the nation we know today. Many have called him "America's greatest President." His leadership through the bloody conflict of the Civil War and his efforts to end slavery changed history, but his personal experiences of loss and grief and his public death forever changed how we mourn and bury our own dead. Lincoln was not just a great politician; he was also relatable and knowable, unlike most Presidents before him. Because of the increased flow of information across the country through mail and newspapers, news became more national than local as the 1800s progressed. When Lincoln's son Willie died in February of 1862, The New York Herald newspaper announced the news, and the country mourned alongside Lincoln and his family.

Lincoln and Loss

Infant and child death and death by infectious disease were much more common in the mid-1800s, making death a familiar visitor to most families. Lincoln, however, suffered perhaps more serious losses in his short life than many. As a young man, he lost his brother in infancy, his mother early in life at the age of 9, and his sister at 19. Adult losses included his fiancé, his father, two sons, his protégé Elmer Ellsworth (who was also the first Union soldier killed in the war), his best friend William McCullough, three brothers-in-law, and the valet he trained and worked with for years. (Note: the valet's death was more complex than it might appear on the surface, as there is a possibility that Lincoln himself infected him with the smallpox he died of). The Lincoln family also lost six horses and ponies in a fire set by a former employee looking for revenge; these animals were very dear to Lincoln himself, as one of the ponies had belonged to his son Willie and represented one last link to his deceased son. Lincoln himself tried to run in and save the pony, but the fire was too overwhelming.

Lincoln did not hold his grief close to the vest; he openly sympathized with others and shared his experiences. He wrote two famous letters of condolence – one to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth and another to Fanny McCullough, the daughter of his close friend William McCullough. To Ellsworth's parents, he wrote, "My dear Sir and Madam, in the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction [grief] here is scarcely less than your own…In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorry, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child." To Fanny, he penned words sharing his own experiences of loss – "…in this sad world of ours, sorrows come to all, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony because it takes them unawares." He reassures her, "You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is this not so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again…I have had experience enough to know what I say, and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once." Lincoln’s openness no doubt reduced the isolation that Fanny felt; he had no way of knowing that centuries later, reading these letters would continue to bring comfort to grievers. Thanatologist Harold Ivan Smith writes, "Grievers need stories or story fragments for reflection…the emotional wilderness of one griever becomes an oasis for another."

Lincoln's Death and Funeral

Lincoln was the first President to be assassinated. Beloved by so many, with the country in turmoil after the end of the Civil War needing stability and leadership, his death reverberated across the nation. Embalming had become common during the Civil War, and Mary Todd Lincoln was a fan of it; she had their son Willie embalmed after viewing Elmer Elsworth's embalmed body and marveling at his lifelike appearance. A plan was made for a funeral train to take Lincoln from Washington, DC, to Springfield, IL, where he was to be buried. Lincoln was embalmed, and Willie's remains were disinterred, and his coffin placed on the train so that he could be buried next to his father at their final destination. The funeral train moved up the east coast through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York and then headed west through Ohio and Indiana before finally arriving in Springfield. The train made 13 stops in larger cities where Lincoln's coffin was removed from the train and taken to a location where the public could view him; early on in the trip, he was described as so lifelike that people reached out to touch him (although the length of the journey and the rudimentary nature of the embalming job meant that by the end of the 13th day when he arrived in Springfield, he was looking much worse for the wear). For so many citizens of the United States, this ability to view and mourn in public was captivating and freeing, and they sought to emulate it. Lincoln's embalming was instrumental in bringing embalming into the mainstream business of funerals and the inception/creation of the funeral industry. As demand for embalming increased, and the wish to be less "hands-on" with their own deceased took hold in society, the "business" of undertaking was born.

Lincoln's Legacy

Lincoln, a great political leader, touched the country in ways no politician had before. Eminently human and relatable, Lincoln's life and public death gave Americans a firsthand view of the humanity of the presidency for the first time. His struggles and tragedies mirrored their own, yet they could draw comfort knowing that public figures were not exempt from the pain of life and loss. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said of Lincoln, "…he had a set of emotional strengths that today we might call emotional intelligence…he essentially did what a great politician does, which is to understand that human relationships are at the core of political success." A strong and decisive leader but also an everyman, our 16th President forever changed our national and individual lives both during his own lifetime and beyond.