Although there are a number of EMS museums spread across America and Canada, there aren’t a lot of museums dedicated to the funeral industry. With that in mind, I took some time to explore the internet to search for some of the more well-known museums that are devoted to the funeral industry.
One would imagine the National Museum of Funeral History in some rambling Victorian mansion — an old funeral home in New England perhaps — with dead leaves blowing across the lawn and ominously creaky front steps.
Instead, the museum is in a blocky, tan building in what looks like a former industrial park, now surrounded by acres of sprawling town-homes, all of it flat, treeless, and baking in the south Texas sun. Young families are everywhere, unloading groceries from mini-vans, and one can only guess what they think of their odd neighbor with the words “Funeral” and “Museum” in big letters on its side.
The National Museum of Funeral History, located in Houston, 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 recreated 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. Visitors can 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, whose stated purpose is to honor “one of our most important cultural rituals,” features a room the size of an aircraft hanger that is used for museum exhibits. The rest of the building is used for meeting and classrooms for a funeral school, “Undertakers University”, but what this place lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in the scope of its collection. It is quiet as a tomb, which, given the displays, is appropriate.
The most prominent items in the museum are hearses and coffins (technically, coffins are 8-sided boxes and “caskets” are 6-sided boxes). Little signs constantly chastise the curious visitor, “Do not open caskets.” The signs are unnecessary, I suspect, atop the “corpse cooler” and especially the “ventilating coffin” for putrid corpses. No one needs to lift the lid of the solid glass coffin, made of the same greenish glass used in old Coke bottles. The “casket for three” has been thoughtfully left open; it was made in the 1930s for a couple in Durango, Colorado, who intended to kill themselves after their baby died. They didn’t; the coffin wound up here.
Hearses take up most of the floor space, although, again, the museum would rather you refer to them as “funeral service vehicles” and notes that all of them are still in working order. A gaudy Japanese Hearse (a custom 1972 Toyota Crown station wagon) catches your eyes, as does a sleek black funeral sleigh. One hearse has a sign noting that it was used as a prop in Cyrano de Bergerac (no information on which version), while another, a 1973 Mercedes, conveyed Princess Grace of Monaco in her 1982 funeral.
Best of all is the huge 1916 Packard funeral bus, created to eliminate funeral processions, which could carry the coffin, pallbearers, and 20 mourners. It was climbing a San Francisco hill when the weight of all those people in the back caused it to tip over, sending people (and a coffin) tumbling onto the street. It was quickly retired, spent the next 40 years as the home of a California ranch hand, and then ended up, like other novel funeral relics, here.
The embalming exhibit — “sponsored by Pierce Chemicals” — is also worthy. A replica 1920s embalming room displays the first electric embalming machine, which looks like a canister vacuum. Next to it is a life-size recreation of the embalming tent of Dr. Thomas Holmes, “father of US embalming,” who rose to fame by following Union armies so that he could embalm dead Civil War soldiers on the battlefield and ship them home.
A case nearby displays a two-page spread from The Professional Embalmer magazine, announcing, “World’s Largest Man Embalmed With Sterilol Cavity Fluid and Creme Celebre.” An accompanying letter cites “a very splendid cosmetic effect as well as perfect preservation” on the man, Sam Harris, who had a 78-inch waist and whose corpse and casket weighed a combined 1,330 pounds.
There is much, much more to see here, scattered about the periphery. A full-size replica of King Tut’s sarcophagus highlights the “Funeral Directors of Ancient Egypt” exhibit. A “Funerals of the Famous” gallery with clippings and souvenirs recalls the sendoffs of Elvis, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Gandhi, Lindbergh, Jackie, Eva Gabor, Judy Gar-land, even John Denver.
For some unexplained reason there’s a huge exhibit devoted to “The Original Superman, Kirk Alien, 1910-1999” who starred as Superman in Columbia serials from 1946-1952.
The Lincoln exhibit has an exact replica of Honest Abe’s coffin, the Marsellus Model, “one of only two in existence today;” and the Unknown Solider Theater shows the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery on video.
Before leaving the museum, visitors can examine the one-of-a-kind gift items in a case by the cash register. The museum’s motto, “Any day above ground is a good one,” is emblazoned across coffee mugs, balloons, and beverage insulators. Videos available for purchase include “The History of Embalming” and “The Value Of The Funeral.” Other items of note are a coffin golf putter, a necklace with little flag-draped coffin charms, and a solid chocolate casket candy bar.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FUNERAL HISTORY
The most popular tourist tomb in America belongs to Abraham Lincoln. So when a piece of property just outside of the cemetery entrance became available, the Illinois Funeral Directors Association snapped it up. For years they had been seeking a good location for their funeral industry museum. “It gave us instant visibility,” said museum director Jon Austin. “Some of the neighbors were dissatisfied, but I think we fit in rather well.”
The purpose of the Museum of Funeral Customs — a big room sectioned into display areas — is to “demystify” the funeral industry, according to Jon. It is a restrained and very quiet place. This may disappoint those accustomed to the Halloween fun house approach to mortality, since the museum has no meat hook exhibits or half-eaten corpses popping out of caskets. There is, however, a great deal of macabre memorabilia, and visitors are encouraged to explore it at their leisure, guided by free exhibit brochures such as Formaldehyde: Its Development and History and The Frenchman Who Influenced American Embalming.
Embalming is in fact the first stop on the self-guided tour, which “gets the least comfortable topic out of the way” according to Jon. One highlight is a recreated 1928 “preparation room,” complete with a corpse draining table and a checker-board-pattern floor (Jon noted that all-black floors are best for puddle visibility). Half-empty bottles of embalming fluid that you really don’t want to touch are lined up atop a shipping crate, next to several hospital-white embalming machines that perform the same function as the oil pump at a Jiffy Lube.
A “Pioneers of Embalming” wall enshrines people such as Thomas Holmes, who juiced over 4,000 dead Civil War soldiers on the battlefield, and Felix Sullivan, who embalmed Presidents Garfield and Grant but was expelled from the 1893 Missouri Funeral Directors Convention because he was drunk.
The American funeral industry, it turns out, is gadget-happy, and the museum showcases many of the products that have served it over the years. There are “casket veils” to keep people (and bugs) from touching bodies during viewings, casket-side lamps with special pink shades to make corpses look more life-like, a baby coffin on wheels in the shape of a bassinet, and an “ice casket” for bodies that didn’t make it to the embalmer on time.
The “Funeral Music” exhibit has over-sized eight-track cassettes that can play endlessly, along with a souvenir program of all of the tunes heard at Ronald Reagan’s funeral (Among them Battle Hymn of the Republic and Swing Low Sweet Chariot).
“Clothing The Dead” showcases tuxedos for the male dead and stockings for the late ladies, and notes that the declining popularity of open caskets has led to a parallel decline in the postmortem fashion industry.
Jon, who is a walking corpus of information, filled us in on The Defiant Tomb of Mr. Accordion just up the road. Beyond it stands the all-important Lincoln Tomb. The Museum of Funeral Customs devotes an entire exhibit to Abe’s funeral, as well as to the subsequent unsuccessful attempts to kidnap his body. An exact replica of Lincoln’s coffin serves as the museum’s centerpiece, six feet five inches long and decorated with silver shamrock studs by its Irish cabinet-maker.
“People who come here from France and Germany say, ‘So what’s the big deal with Abraham Lincoln?'” Jon told us. “Most people in Europe don’t know who he is, and don’t care.”
Although the official motto of the museum is “Death is only the beginning,” its gift shop sells t-shirts with the more jolly “I Dig the Museum of Funeral Customs.” Also available are locally-made miniature chocolate coffins — the museum’s most popular souvenir. Open the lid and you’ll find a chocolate mummy, which makes these chocolate coffins better than the chocolate coffins at the museum, which are solid.
When asked if anything at the museum was so odd that it caught him off guard, Jon replied, “Goths want to lie in the coffins.” And with coffins like the mighty 600-pound Seamless Copper Deposit on display — “the casket of choice among America’s wealthiest families,” according to its placard — who can blame them?
Once, funeral director Duane Marsh noticed an elderly couple from Iowa standing hesitantly at the door of the Museum of Funeral Customs, a shrine here to embalming tools, coffins and other artifacts of the rites of death. Marsh, who was the executive director of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association, which operates the museum, was able to convince the woman that it was really not such a ghoulish place, and then led the couple on a tour.
A stone’s throw from Lincoln’s tomb, this unusual cultural repository is an unmistakable reminder that everyone’s days are numbered. Now it seems the same was true of the museum itself. Unable to attract enough visitors, (apparently the Iowa woman was not the only one who got the creeps from this place) the museum struggled to stay alive. The curator position had been eliminated, and the museum’s hours had been cut to appointments only. These were difficult days in Springfield, the Illinois capital, as the economy nosedived and many people have lost their jobs. Not even funeral parlors were immune, Mr. Marsh said, as survivors sometimes choose thriftier ways to pay respects.
The association of funeral directors has had other problems, too. A trust it once managed — focused on “pre-need” funeral planning — declined sharply in value, prompting a handful of civil lawsuits alleging financial mismanagement. Although the museum used no money from the trust, Mr. Marsh said, the association’s budget took a hit. But the museum’s problems are more basic: Since its founding in 1999, it failed to become a destination. In recent years, the museum attracted about 8,000 customers annually; tickets for adults were $4 and those for children are $2. It wasn’t nearly enough to cover expenses. “The original idea was that we’d get enough spillover from people visiting the Lincoln sites,” Mr. Marsh said. “But for whatever reason, that just didn’t happen. When a business isn’t paying its way, as everyone knows, you have trouble.”
Smack in the center of Illinois, surrounded by corn and soybean fields, this city is mostly known for colorful politicians (prosecutors have used the word corrupt) and tourism ventures that almost invariably make some tie to Honest Abe.
The funeral museum has a replica of the coffin that carried Lincoln from Washington to Springfield in 1865. It also features embalming equipment, a horse-drawn hearse from the 1920s, a long black Cadillac that carried the dead in the 1970s and black mourning clothes worn in the Victorian era. The museum explores the differences among religions and cultures in marking death, pointing out that slaves held funerals deep into the night because many plantation owners refused to give them a break from work during the day to hold their funerals.
Plenty of people in Springfield say they would lament the passing of the funeral museum. Sarah Vaughn, an assistant manager at the Feed Store, (a restaurant across from the Old State Capitol), said that it had been several years since she had visited the museum, but that she would never forget it.
“It’s really quite a cool place,” Ms. Vaughn said. “I know that sounds macabre to say. But it’s very interesting. I remember learning about Native American burials when I went there. It was sad for Springfield when it closed.”
Mr. Marsh, a second-generation mortician who lived in a funeral home until he was 6, said the museum helped “demystify” notions about what happens to the body after death. He recalled some difficult moments when he worked as a funeral director, especially the times he had to prepare the body of a child. “I remember one time I got so tearful,” he said, “that I just had to get up and walk away for a while.”
But he said a wake can be a heartening experience, too, a chance for people to tell stories and laugh and share their fondness for a lost loved one. “I’m telling you,” he said, “there were times when you couldn’t tell if it was a funeral or a wedding.”
A gift shop at the funeral museum included key chains and paper weights that look like little coffins, and books on funeral customs, one with the title of “Do It Yourself Tombstone.” There were coffin-shaped chocolates and even T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Everybody’s Gotta Go Some-time.” Definitely keepsakes.
This museum has reportedly been killed off by that poorly managed trust fund. Its phone has been disconnected, its web site has vanished. But its exhibits and custom building probably aren’t going anywhere, and there will always be funerals, so this museum may come back to life, someday.
THE OTHER END OF THE STRECTRUM
The World Famous Museum of Death was founded in San Diego June 1, 1995. Originally located in San Diego’s first mortuary in a building once owned by Wyatt Earp, this Hollywood hotspot evolved from the controversial art gallery the Rita Dean, founders James Healy and Cathee Shultz. They realized the void in the death education in this country and decided to make death their life’s work.
Recently reopened at it’s new location on Hollywood Blvd., the Museum of Death houses the worlds largest collection of serial murderer artwork; photos of the Charles Manson crime scenes; the guillotined severed head of the Blue Beard of Paris, Henri Landru; original crime scene and morgue photos from the grisly Black Dahlia murders; a body bag and coffin collection; replicas of full-size execution devices, mortician and autopsy instruments; pet death taxidermy, and much much more. Oh boy.
Also on display are videos of autopsies and serial killers, the Heaven’s Gate Cult recruiting video, and the infamous Traces (not faces) of Death video, all real (not re-enacted) death footage. Obviously we do not suggest this tourist venue as a family event any time soon.
When one considers the size of the funeral industry in America alone, you would expect a plethora of funeral museums spread across the country. There aren’t that many museums dedicated to the funeral industry, and some of those that were established in the past have closed their doors. The average person probably doesn’t want to be reminded of their own mortality, or what will be done to their body upon death. Then again, the enviable will most certainly happen.