With the media fixated on death and dying, with the passing first of Terri Schiavo, and now Pope John Paul II, it is timely to discuss some museums out there that deal with funerary traditions and history. These museums are genuine institutions, dedicated to serious scholarship on the history of death- and funeral-related topics.
The National Museum of Funeral History and the Museum of Funeral Customs are two of the best-known American museums dedicated to this subject.
* The National Museum of Funeral History
The National Museum of Funeral History, located in Houston, Texas, opened in October 1992 as the realization of Mr. Robert Waltrip’s long-lived dream to create a museum celebrating the history of the funeral industry.
The Museum features a re-created casket factory from 1900, which was designed from original architectural plans and historic photographs. It showcases the skill required to build wooden coffins. A “virtual tour” allows you to learn more about the factory over the internet. Be sure to click on the various artifacts in the photos to learn more about each one!
There is also an online exhibit on Civil War embalming, with a special focus on Dr. Thomas Holmes’ work on the battlefield.
A highlight of the museum is an exhibit called “A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins,” which displays 12 artistically carved wooden coffins that are part of the Museum’s permanent collection. It represents the largest collection of fantasy coffins outside of Ghana, where it is a cherished tradition.
The Museum’s collection also includes an 1860 German “Glaswagen” Funeral Coach, a solid glass casket made in Oklahoma, and the original “Eternal Flame” placed at President Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. (It was replaced by a newer unit in 1998 and the original one was given to the National Museum of Funeral History)
* The Museum of Funeral Customs
Located in Springfield, Illinois, the Mission of the Museum of Funeral Customs is to “provide the public with a deeper understanding of the history of American funeral and mourning customs, funerary art and practice” and to “foster an appreciation of history within the funeral profession.”
The museum includes:
· Re-created 1920s "Operating" or Embalming Room
· Re-created middle-class American Home Funeral Setting, c1870
· Horse-drawn hearses that show city and rural funeral service
· Embalming equipment and instruments
· Caskets and coffins that represent changing tastes and designs
· Portable funeral equipment
· Chapel equipment and furnishings
· Examples of post-mortem photography
· Articles of mourning clothing, jewelry, and adornment
Some of the above can be seen by taking a “virtual tour” of the Museum. Funeral “FAQs” on the site answer questions such as where pallbearers got their name and the origins of the “riderless horse” at military funerals.
The website of the Museum of Funeral Customs contains information sheets on Victorian mourning clothing, the development of formaldehyde, and the embalming of President Lincoln. Events have included poetry readings, first person re-enactments, and historical lectures relating to funeral customs.