Sunday, February 8, 2009

Edward C. Johnson

"Christine? This is Mr. Johnson." That's how our telephone conversations would start, and I miss them. I'm not sure who put me in touch with this extraordinary man, but he offered an amazing amount of information and feedback when I was writing The Corpse: A History and Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century. And no one was more qualified. Mr. Johnson was 80 when I met him and had been an embalmer from an early age. He practiced restorative art, passed his skills on to students, and researched its history. I sent him cookies in the mail; he sent me articles from his files, annotated in his distinctive handwriting. I was happy to have spent a day with him in Chicago, visiting the Egyptian mummies at the Field Museum, and glad that a retrospective article about his life appeared in The American Funeral Director before he died. The brief biography below is taken from that two-part article - "The Life & Times of Edward C. Johnson: America's Embalmer Emeritus and Dean of American Funeral Service History" by Mac McCormick (American Funeral Director, August and September 1999) - and from his obituaries.

Edward C. Johnson (1914-2000) first apprenticed at a funeral home (Turnbull and Merager in Spokane) at the age of 20, having already enlisted in the National Guard. He pursued a degree in mortuary science at Worsham College in Chicago and graduated as class president and valedictorian in 1936. He worked at another firm (Chicago's Smith and Maginot), embalming people in their homes and nuns in their convent. While working next at the John Pederson Funeral Home in Chicago, he helped grade mortuary service exams.

Serving in World War II, Mr. Johnson traveled the world and demonstrated embalming in Australia. Discharged in 1942, he returned to Worsham College to instruct more than 10,000 students in restorative art, embalming, and the history of American funeral service. It was the latter that gave him the most pleasure: "Although I have embalmed at least 20,000 bodies, the achievement that I am the proudest of is the fact that I introduced a course in history to this field. Before that time, we had so many legends and false ideas that it was ridiculous. [With a history,] you have an idea who you are, and where you fit in. You know who your professional ancestors are."

Mr. Johnson opened his own funeral home in Chicago in 1947, operating the Johnson Mortuary until the mid-1980s. He was dean and instructor at the Post-Graduate Institute of Restorative Art from 1948 to 1958 (and is pictured with his pipe and his students in the above photo). The institute merged with Worsham College, where he continued to teach until 1973. Ten years later, he joined the faculty of Malcolm X Chicago City College, where he taught embalming history, theory, and practice until 1995.

During his lifelong career, Mr. Johnson wrote hundreds of historical and professional articles; was a major contributor to the books Funeral Customs the World Over and The History of American Funeral Directing, published by the National Funeral Directors Association; and in 1997 published a book about the Civil War (in which his maternal grandfather fought), entitled All Were Not Heroes: A Study of "The List of U. S. Soldiers Executed by U. S. Military Authorities During the Late War."

Mr. Johnson served as an expert witness in many civil court cases, and consulted with the major airlines about the problems of transporting bodies. With his wife of 46 years, Gail (a licensed embalmer and funeral director who died in 1995), and later his daughter Melissa Johnson Williams (practicing embalmer and executive director of the American Society of Embalmers), he taught funeral service seminars around the world and contributed to Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice by long-time friend and colleague Robert G. Mayer.

Some of Mr. Johnson's other awards and accomplishments are listed below:

1942: His major revision to the Embalming section of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published.

1948: Commissioned as a captain in the Quartermaster Corps in the Graves Registration Division of the U.S. Army Reserves.

1961: Appointed as the first chief of mortuary operations for the United Nations.

1963: The government of Italy presented him with the Order of the Cavalier and Medal of Merit for his recovery and embalming of 13 Italian soldiers killed in the Congo.

1988: Fifty-year citation from the Illinois Funeral Directors Association.

1995: Received an honorary doctorate from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, and the U.S. Army Outstanding Civilian Service medal for his work in the Congo.

1998: Received the NFDA Resolution Honoring his Professionalism and Contribution to Funeral Service and Humanity.

Mr. Johnson died on Christmas, concerned till the end about his clients. Says his daughter Melissa, "My father...lived and breathed funeral service his entire life." May he continue to rest in peace, knowing how many people he touched, literally and figuratively.

1 comment:

  1. Victoria R. Johnson9/25/2014 11:21 PM

    Thank for a beautiful and eloquent description of my father. He was truly a great man in his field as was my mother, Gail R. Johnson and my sister Melissa Williams.


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