August 19, 2009

National Museum of Funeral History - Houston, TX

One of the many reasons I love visiting my friend Anna is that she has always planned a visit to somewhere interesting and just plain weird. In Chicago, we tried to visit the International Museum of Surgical Science but that plan was derailed by the fact there is no parking in the city. Her plan for Texas, however, was brilliant and came to full fruition with our visit to the National Museum of Funeral History. Anna and I share a morbid sense of humor, so this was a treat for both of us.

The National Museum of Funeral History has little to do with death or any of the gory details. It is more about funeral business. The first exhibit is about carriage hearses. Interestingly, they don't mention much about the person who would have been carried in the carriage. It is about the vehicle itself - how it was constructed, the materials used and the time period that influenced the design. The same follows with coffins. Mostly, they about how they were constructed (there is a 1900's coffin factory display) and what influenced different designs. There is, of course, the occasional gruesome story. One coffin was constructed to fit three people - it was commissioned by a couple after their child had died. They planned for him to kill her and then himself and then be buried with their child. They never followed through with their horrifying murder/suicide pact and the coffin is now on display in the museum.

Not all the coffins are simple or gruesome. Some are extravagant like a coffin with real dollar bills and coins in it. In this case, I guess he can take it with him. There are also the whimsical coffins from the "A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins- Kane Quaye" exhibit. Ghanaian sculptor Quaye created coffins to symbolize aspects of the deceased's life. It includes twelve coffins carved to look like a KLM Airliner, a Mercedes Benz, a Fish, a Fishing Canoe, a Leopard, a Chicken, a Bull, a Crab, a fish Eagle, a Lobster, a Shallot, and a Yamaha Outboard Motor.

Other exhibits are devoted to the funerals of the famous. In one area is an exhibit for Presidential funerals. It displays small keepsakes from the historical occasions. Most of these are items specifically for the occasions such as programs from the memorial service, mourning ribbons and newspaper article about the event. There are also personal items from attendees such as the boots worn by a member of the armed guard at the funeral. But like the coffins, there is also the occasional gruesome tidbit - like a piece of scalp taken from Abraham Lincoln's head after he'd been shot.

One of the largest exhibits is "Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes." The papal exhibit includes a full-scale replica of Pope John Paul II's crypt, an exact reproduction of the coffin used in the funerals of three previous Popes as well as replicas of other Papal vestments. As a result of my good Catholic education, I already knew most of these traditions. But I was thrilled to see something I've never seen before - a Popemobile! Oh I'd seen it on television and seen pictures of it in books, but never had I seen real live Popemobile. For those unmarred by a Catholic school education, the Popemobile is a white Range Rover with a plexiglass case on the back where the Pope stands and waves to people.

There are smaller exhibits describing ancient and current funeral rituals from other cultures, such as Mexico's Day of the Dead and Egypt's mummies. But I was quickly distracted by exhibits on embalming. After reading Mary Roach's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," I got curious about embalming. (Really Weird Fact: The Father of Embalming, Dr. Thomas Holmes, went insane in his later years and lived with parts of cadavers he had embalmed - such as heads on tables in the living room.)

Embalming gained notoriety during the Civil War when 10,000 to 40,000 soldiers were embalmed so they could be transported home for burial. The process has developed and improved over time, often by accident. In nineteenth century Paris, a well-known man died and was embalmed before burial. Later the police suspected he might have been murdered and dug him to re-examine the body. They found arsenic in the body and charged the man's mistress with murder. The embalmer, Dr. Gannal, came forward and revealed arsenic was a component in his embalming fluid so the woman could not be found guilty on that evidence. As a result, Europe outlawed the use of arsenic in embalming fluid in the 1840's. The United States followed suit in the 1870's.

It is was a weird, morbid and educational museum. I left feeling oddly upbeat - like the museum's slogan says, "Any Day Above Ground is a Good One."

Total Travel Distance: 80 miles
Total Trip Time: 3 hours
Soundtrack: You guessed it - Country radio!



  1. You forgot to mention our adventure getting there hehehe.

  2. Oh, yeah! We found the Department of Homeland Security! They were hiding in Texas the whole time!