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Photo by Diane Cox
Jon Austin explains why bodies are placed in certain positions to help in preservation.
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Photo by Diane Cox
A display of original and replica items used in the presentation provided by Jon Austin.
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Photo by Diane Cox
Todd Oberkfell of Roxana portrays a Civil War soldier who died in battle. Next to him are chemicals used to help preserve the body.
The Wood River Library Internet lounge was filled on Wednesday, April 23, for a presentation sure to leave a lasting impression. The topic was preserving the corpse of a Civil War soldier so the body could be returned home for burial.
Shannon Fallis, of Wood River, got her love of history from her parents, who were involved in Civil War re-enactments.
"I am a history geek," Fallis said. "I thought this would be really interesting and something not commonly talked about."
Jon Austin of Peoria has spent the last 30-plus years studying history and museum studies. During his employment by the Illinois Funeral Directors Association, Austin put together a presentation to show the approach taken by surgeons to preserve Civil War decedents to get them back home to their families for burial.
"Two years ago I suggested this presentation and it has been widely popular," Austin said. “This is a difficult topic for many; I have found that they are still very curious and want to know more about it, but may have never been in a place they feel comfortable enough to ask."
Jon Austin received an undergraduate degree with honors from Bradley University as well as two graduate degrees from New York University in American history and museum studies. Austin was the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society and was the first executive director of the Museum of Funeral Customs, formerly in Springfield, Ill.
Austin enjoys giving his first-person presentation to schools, historical organizations, community groups and Civil War re-enactments.
"Preserving through sanitation was first used in food preservation," Austin said. "Of the more than 650,000 Civil War casualties, only roughly 40,000 were given the treatment."
For his presentation at the library, he required the assistance of another individual to portray who Austin referred to as the "star of the show,” a deceased Civil War soldier.
Roxana High School senior Todd Oberkfell portrayed the convincing corpse upon which Jon Austin demonstrated the embalming procedure.
"I really like history, particularly the Civil War era," Oberkfell said. "I asked my parents to take me to a re-enactment several years ago and I liked it so much that I wanted to get involved."
Austin brought with him a collection of replica and original surgical pieces used by Civil War surgeons. He brought chemicals to demonstrate combined substances injected into corpses to help with preservation. Along with the instruments of the trade, Austin demonstrated how surgeons determined the soldier was in fact deceased before beginning any procedures. Austin discussed different stages of decomposition as well as aspects of human anatomy.
After the presentation, viewers asked questions and participated in a discussion.
One guest asked about the procedure’s cost.
"The average salary of a soldier was $15 per month," Austin said. "The cost of the procedure was also $15 a month, which was very costly."
Burial and a casket were not included in the cost.
Austin said some soldiers and officers planned ahead in the case of their death and would carry a card to show they paid in advance for their procedure.
Mary Birdsell of Kendall Hill saw the presentation advertised in AdVantage News’ community calendar and knew it would be an interesting and educational experience.
"I have always had an interest in the Civil War," Birdsell said. "I enjoy watching programs on stations like PBS, and it's amazing the progress that has been made in medical studies and advanced medicine."
The Wood River Library is widely involved in community education and plans many events in coordination with the Wood River Heritage Council.
Brenda Fick works with the Wood River Heritage Council and got a front-row seat for the presentation.
"I have always had a high interest in the Civil War," Fick said. "I had seen something similar to this last fall and it was really interesting to see this side of the war."
For more information on the Wood River Library and future educational events, visit the website at www.woodriverlibrary.org or their Facebook page, www.facebook/woodriverlibrary; or contact Library Director Kate Kite at (618) 254-4832.