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How America Struggled to Bury the Dead During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

February 12, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

Undertakers, gravediggers and casket makers couldn’t keep up with history’s deadliest pandemic.

As a terrifyingly lethal influenza virus swept across the globe between 1918 and 1920, history’s deadliest pandemic claimed the lives of approximately 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. Nearly 200,000 Americans died from the “Spanish Flu” in October 1918 alone, making it the deadliest month in the country’s history.

With cremation an uncommon practice at the time, the sheer number of bodies overwhelmed the capacity of undertakers, gravediggers and casket makers to keep pace with the arduous task of burying the dead. At the same time, a prohibition on public gatherings that included funerals and wakes compounded the pain of many grief-stricken families who could not properly mourn the loss of their loved ones.

America Was Unprepared for the Flu’s Mass Mortality

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

Nancy K. Bristow, a University of Puget Sound history professor and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, says the United States had been caught unprepared for the outbreak partly because advances in bacteriology made many Americans believe they could control infectious diseases.

“This is not what Americans in 1918 expected to occur,” she says. “An enormous number of people died very quickly, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard where the flu struck first, and they didn’t have an opportunity to prepare in any way.”

The mass mortality led to macabre scenes. Red Cross nurses in Baltimore reported instances of visiting flu-ravaged homes to discover sick patients in bed beside dead bodies. In other cases, corpses were covered in ice and shoved into bedroom corners where they festered for days.

Inundated undertakers stacked caskets in funeral home hallways and even in their living quarters. In New Haven, Connecticut, six-year-old John Delano and his friends played outside of a mortuary, scaling a mountain of caskets piled on a sidewalk, unaware of the contents inside. “We thought—boy, this is great. It’s like climbing the pyramids,” he recalled.

Photos: Innovative Ways People Tried to Protect Themselves From the Flu

Boys wear bags of camphor around their necks around the time of the 1918-19 Spanish flu—an “old-wives’ method of flue-prevention,” according to a December 1946 issue of Life magazine.

View the 9 images of this gallery on the original article

Cemeteries struggled to handle the soaring death toll. With gravediggers absent …read more

Source: HISTORY

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