Houston, TX: The National Museum of Funeral History

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It seems like late summer/early fall is always such a travel whirlwind for me (and the blog).  First Italy, and now the US, specifically, Houston (which I’m always tempted to mispronounce Hoos-ton in Matthew Kelly style, since I’ve watched far too many old-ass episodes of Stars in Their Eyes).  My boyfriend had to travel there for work, and as soon as I found out, my first thoughts were of the National Museum of Funeral History, which, as readers of my Places I’d Like to Visit page will know, I’ve wanted to go to pretty much forever.  Fortunately, my boyfriend agreed that it and many other things in Texas were worth seeing, so we arranged to meet there for a few days after he was done with work stuff, before flying up to Cleveland for a bit to see my family ‘n’ junk.  The Funeral Museum was my top (only?) priority in Houston, so that’s where we headed my first morning there.  Which is convenient, because in lieu of anything spookier, it’ll have to serve as my Halloween post this year.

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The museum was not that easy to find, being located in a nondescript building on the outskirts of town, but I’m happy to say that it was both massive and deserted when we got there.  Admission is $10, which seems kind of steep until you see the size of this place.  The main gallery is dominated by a splendid collection of hearses, including some that pre-date the automobile.  Numerous other smaller galleries split off from there, focusing on funerals of celebrities, the popes, and the presidents, among others.

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Even though I was dying (pun intended) to see the presidential gallery, I thought I’d restrain myself and save that for last, so I started in the opposite corner of the museum with celebrity funerals.  There was a large display about the Wizard of Oz, primarily about the recently deceased actors who portrayed various Munchkins, with a replica of the Coroner’s outfit, as well as an old video of the actor who played him explaining why he was given the role (he could competently deliver a few lines, basically, having had some experience in show business.  He had previously worked for Oscar Mayer, travelling around the country in the Wienermobile as the “World’s Smallest Chef,” which is a story in its own right).  There was also a Walt Disney corner, but most of the space in this gallery was devoted to some guy’s collection of funeral memorial booklets.  You know, those little pamphlets they give out at a memorial service, usually with a picture of the deceased on the front and some information about their life inside (actually, I’ve never been to a funeral where those were handed out, since Catholics tend to favour those little prayer cards, but I’ve seen them before).

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These were worth remarking on mainly because many of them belonged to people who I thought were kind of cool, such as Jack LaLanne and Al Lewis.  There was also a quiz on the epitaphs of various famous people, which I should have known since they were also actors I liked, including Leslie Nielsen and Walter Matthau, but I did not excel at it.  (I also love Jack Lemmon and Burgess Meredith, primarily from Grumpy Old Men, but I can’t watch the sequel without crying when Burgess Meredith dies.  I also get weepy at that one Twilight Zone, because all the poor guy wanted to do was be left alone to read.  I can sympathise.)

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We accidentally went through the funeral history section backwards, getting to the Egyptians last, but that didn’t matter, because I was most interested in all the Victorian mourning paraphernalia anyway.  I’m already very well acquainted with hair art and mourning jewellery, but the mourning clock was a new one.  I actually think it’s a lovely idea, though obviously I don’t want any of my friends or family to die anytime soon, so perhaps acquiring an antique one would be best (or I could have one made in honour of my grandparents maybe?).  I am definitely goth enough to hang something like that in my house (it helps that the picture on the one on display was Edward Gorey-esque).

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The Egyptian stuff was fine; they had a very blinged-out sarcophagus (I’m a pretty good speller, but I always have to try that one a few times before I get it right), but it was mostly just laminated print-outs hanging from the walls, and not quite up to the standard of the other galleries.

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Especially the Papal Funerals.  Oh my gott.  This was much much larger than I was expecting; every time we thought we were done, we turned a corner and it kept going.  I am, as I’ve mentioned before, an EXTREMELY lapsed Catholic (lapsed all the way into atheism), so I can’t pretend I’ve any particular interest in the popes or their funerals (other than the fun of saying Papa Francesco with an Italian accent), but I was surprised by how much I learned in here.

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From what the colours of the hats mean about the various ranks of clergy, to what happens to the pope’s ring after he dies, and how the whole red shoe thing got started, it was unexpectedly fascinating stuff.  Did you know the pope is buried in not one, not two, but THREE coffins?!  It’s like they’re scared he’s going to turn into a vampire and escape or something.

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My boyfriend was probably most keen on the Ghanaian coffins, which were kept in a slightly hidden-away room about funeral customs world-wide.  Basically, some guy in Ghana started making coffins in shapes that reflected either the dead person’s personality, or something the dead person loved when they were alive, and it caught on and became a whole craze for anyone who could afford one.  On an episode of An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington had a giant Twix made, which we both agreed is the best one we’ve seen (it helps that Twix is probably the best candy bar, tied with Snickers), but the ones here were pretty good too, especially the big ol’ crab (let’s face it, if it’s meant to represent one’s personality, that’s probably what I should be buried in).  There was also some stuff about Japanese and Mexican funerals.

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It’s time to talk about some of the displays in the main gallery; the coolest thing (in my opinion) being a funeral bus (above right).  It was built in 1916, and meant to be a solution to the problem of extended funeral processions tying up roads, since it could hold the coffin, up to twenty mourners, and the pallbearers.  Unfortunately, when they tried it out, it proved to be unbalanced, and flipped; the coffin opened up, the mourners all fell out, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster, so it was never used again. But apparently some guy lived in it for a while; if you have to live in a bus, I think a funeral bus is probably the way to go.

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Other noteworthy objects included a 1921 hearse with beautiful wood carvings made to resemble drapes on the side, hearses used to carry the bodies of Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan, and a money casket, with slots on the side to donate coins (I guess in theory to help pay for funeral costs, although it’s just used for fundraising events, and not to actually hold bodies).  Personally, I’m a fan of the old-school body shaped coffins, which weren’t really well represented here, but no matter; the depressing story of the coffin built for three (it was meant for a couple who planned to kill themselves after their child died, so they could all be buried together, but apparently changed their minds, as it was never used) made up for it.

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I finally made it over to the Presidential Funeral section, which was not as big nor as extensive as I’d been hoping (especially compared to the papal one), and focused mainly on Lincoln, I guess because he had the most public and extravagant funeral.  Because he was the first to be assassinated AND he was president during such a pivotal time in American history, the American people really went all out for his funeral, arranging for his body to be embalmed (which really began to become more mainstream because of the American Civil War) and carried on a special funeral train throughout major Northern American cities on the way home to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried.  One of the stops was Cleveland, and I definitely would have turned up to see it, you know, had I been born 150 years earlier or so, but since I don’t own a TARDIS or other time machine, I enjoyed looking at the miniature model of the train.

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You all know how much I love FDR, and I confess I was hoping for more on his funeral than the brief treatment it got, but alas, that was the fate of most of the presidents, save for the assassinated ones and Ronald Reagan.  A brief blurb if they were lucky (and maybe only ten of them even got that much), and maybe a newspaper article relating to their death.

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The final section was a tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the soldiers from all the various wars who have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  There didn’t appear to be a special exhibit at the time we visited, although future ones on the myths and legends of the graveyard and the history of cremation in America look pretty interesting, and I’m sorry to have missed them.

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I was a little disappointed in the shop (they could have had a better selection of souvenirs relating to the museum, like postcards and books, instead of generic skeleton stuff), and I do wish the presidential section could have been more comprehensive, but overall, the museum more than lived up to my expectations (which were admittedly pretty damn high).  I’m fascinated by morbid stuff like this, so I loved it, especially the Victorian funeral history section and the casket and hearse collection.  In fact, I think there could have been even more funeral history, since that gallery seemed to skip over most of the advances in preservation between the Egyptians and the Victorians, which is a big time period to exclude.  For example, I think the work of early modern anatomists and preservationists like Frederik Ruysch (there he is again), was revolutionary, and well-worth a mention.  Those things aside though, the National Museum of Funeral History really delivered, and I’m thrilled I can finally cross this one off the list, since I’ve been waiting to see it for so damn long.  4/5.  And because I won’t have another post out until next week, and I can’t neglect my favourite holiday, I’ll use this as an opportunity to wish you all a happy (scary?) Halloween!

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7 comments

    1. I’m not a big Disney person either (except for Robin Hood; why is an animated fox so disturbingly sexy?!), so much so that it only registered with me now that it was meant to be a glass coffin from Snow White! I think I barely glanced at it when I was actually there; the epitaph game was more exciting.

      1. Oh yeah, he was definitely a foxy fox. Hopefully I can get out to Houston sometime and try my hand at the quiz too – sounds fun!

  1. Well, I feel cheated I’ve only been to one of these places – but I HAVE been to a barbed wire museum in Texas (I just can’t remember where it was … we were visiting Canyon TX for a Georgia O’Keefe exhibition)

    1. Well, a barbed wire museum sounds pretty fantastic! (And I sincerely mean that, though it may come across as sarcastic when typed!) I’m assuming it would have talked about how barbed wire changed the cattle industry and the landscape of the West, rather than just the wire itself, though hell, I’d probably go to the latter sort of museum too, just so I could blog about it.

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