Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Till death do us part…

Since yesterday was our anniversary and we’re out of town, I got to pick the day’s amusements. In situations like this, I go straight to my computer and one of my favorite websites, Roadside America. They know the absolute best places to see! It was through that website (I also have the book) that I learned of Ralph the diving pig. I had to send them an email giving them the sad news that Ralph dives no more.

So there I was, looking at things to do around Houston and lo and behold, what do I find? This hidden little gem!



Now don’t get all wiggy on me! It’s actually very interesting. Come on, I’ll show you…

There was a display showing how the first pine caskets were made.


These were master craftsmen who took much pride in their work. The business was passed down through the family.
There was quite an interesting array of caskets, from the historical to the whimsical. As I was looking though my pictures, I realized I didn’t take any pictures of the early caskets. I don’t know why, they were really enlightening. I will say this, people were much smaller a hundred years ago.

Here are a few of the whimsical ones:

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These caskets are made in Ghana, where the people believe that death is not a termination of life, but a transition to the realm of the ancestral spirits. The Ga people believe the transportation to the next realm should reflect who they were in life. For instance, chiefs, hunters and priests prefer coffins that reflect their considerable power over the community: leopard, eagle, antelope or sword.

This next casket was made in the 70s when shellacking was popular. It has over $670 worth of uncirculated money on it. It used to have more, but it was robbed. True story.



Every culture, the world over, has its own mourning rituals. This museum focuses on 19th and 20th century funerary history in the United States.  I am very interested in the funeral rituals of all cultures and would love to visit a museum dedicated to that.

Here is a typical scene of a funeral in the 1800s.


In the early 19th century, when a person died, the funeral director would come to the house and prepare the body. It would then lie in state until the family gathered for burial. A widow would follow strict guidelines on proper mourning attire for a full two years after the death of her husband. Some families had pictures taken of their deceased family member and wear it as a pin on their mourning clothes.

Another example of mourning practices is hair jewelry and hair wreaths. Locks of hair were tatted to make lace-like bracelets and watch fobs for family members. Hair wreaths are intricate works with pearls and other jewels woven together to form a piece of art.

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The second one had a bit of glare on it, so I cropped it off so you could see better. These were often displayed with a picture of the deceased.

There was a section on the history of embalming. It became popular during the civil war as a way for families to have their loved ones, killed on the battlefields, shipped home for a proper burial. The techniques were quite primitive compared to today’s methods. Embalming became a necessary tool as families started to spread out across the country. It give families time to gather together and mourn the loss of a loved one.

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This museum has a fabulous collection of funeral coaches. From very early, horse driven carriages…

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…to the modern day hearse.

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The last one is the actual hearse used to transport President Reagan and President Ford during their funerals in California.

Speaking of presidents, there was a complete section on the deaths of presidents, including memorial memorabilia from their funerals. The museum has the original eternal flame housing from President Kennedy’s grave in Arlington. President Lincoln was the first to be embalmed. He was fascinated with the procedure and had made his wishes known before his death, that he should be embalmed. This is what his casket looked like, lying in state:


The casket is 6 feet 10 inches long, as Lincoln was 6’4”, which was extremely tall for that era. His funeral train was the longest funeral in history as it moved from Washington DC to his hometown in Springfield, Ill making stops along the way so the public could mourn his passing.

The museum also had a corner dedicated to the Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington, and the men who guard it. I have seen the changing of the guards and it never fails to move me.

The museum is now the permanent host of the exhibit, Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes.  This exhibit is a product of three years of intense collaboration between the Vatican and the Museum of Funeral History. It gives great detail to the preparations and symbolism of a Pope’s funeral.

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We are not Catholic, but were amazed and touched by all that is involved when a Pope passes on. There were life sized depictions of the Pope laying in state, as well as funeral preparations. While the displays were phenomenal, it seemed a bit disrespectful to take pictures of them, so I didn’t. You will just have to go see for yourself. At the end of the 10,000 sq. foot display are three exact replicas of the caskets that are made especially for the Popes. They were made and donated by a casket company that wanted the world to see the craftsmanship that goes into the simple, yet elegant final resting place of a Pope.

Oh, they do have the original Pope-Mobile!


This is the world’s only casket built for three:

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A couple in the 1930’s lost their small child. They were so despondent, they made a plan to commit suicide to be with their child. The couple went to a mortuary in the Western states and explained to the mortician what they had in mind. They wanted a special casket built large enough for the man, wife and child. Once the casket was completed, and the suicides committed, their remains were to be placed in the special casket and shipped back East to where their child was buried. The child was to be disinterred and placed in the special casket with the parents and then buried together as a family.

The couple later changed their minds and moved to another state. Twenty years later, the wife sent a letter to the mortuary, stating that her husband had died and asked for her money to be refunded for the triple casket. The owner of the mortuary let her know that the place had changed hands twice over the intervening years and he was unable to refund her money for the casket and let her know the casket would have to be moved. No further word has been received regarding the disposition of the casket since the 1050s.


I really enjoyed this museum! It was chock full of interesting historical information about one of our most important cultural rituals. I thought it was a great way to spend out anniversary. Nothing says “I love you forever” like looking at death together.

When we first walked in, CGMan said to me, “This is really creeping me out, I just want you to know” but as we left, he said he enjoyed it a lot more than he thought he would. He even bought a T-shirt!


We finished out our anniversary by having dinner at a local steak and seafood house. We set aside our diet for one night and enjoyed all they had to offer. I had the most wonderful bacon wrapped, jalapeño cheese stuffed shrimp. For dessert, we shared a homemade crème brulee cheesecake. Or waiter, who was young and obviously very new, ran back to get dessert forks for us, since he had taken away our dinner forks. You just have to love a kid who tries.

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We had a great anniversary and thank you all for your warm wishes. Next year, we hope to make it to Italy for our 15th anniversary. I’m sure I can find some interesting things there, too!


For more information on the Funeral History Museum and additional pictures of some of the displays, go here.

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