1862. Dr. Lethem Cornell is a surgeon for the Union Army, serving with his brother, Clem. When Clem is seriously wounded, Lethem tries to save him--but before he can, Lethem is shot in the arm by a stray bullet. Lethem wakes in the hospital to find that his arm has been amputated, and Clem is dead. He escorts his brother's corpse home. However, after a few days on the road, Lethem witnesses a new horror. Clem's corpse bursts out of its casket due to gas buildup and lands in the mud. Lethem learns this is a regular occurrence, because the only accepted method to preserve a body is to seal it in its casket. Haunted, Lethem decides there is only one thing to do. He must solve this problem, and bring dignity back to death. As a result, Lethem invents a radical procedure: embalming. However, his work puts him at odds with his family, community, and the local Bishop, who insists that tampering with the dead is heresy. The conflict ends violently, with Lethem's father killed. Lethem embalms him and holds a service. By giving his father a dignified sendoff, Lethem is able to find his own peace.