Recently, the Writers on the Storm chapter of ACFW went on a field trip to the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. Yes, you read that right–a funeral museum. Once you get over the morbidity of the idea, you realize just how many wonderful things you can discover in such a museum. But just in case you can’t see the value, let me fill you in on the story potential, or at least the research potential:
Did you know that the only ones who can lie “in state” are people of a certain stature–like politicians and such? And the only place they can be “in state” is in a capital building, like the White House, or some state capitol. A politician can be “in repose” in any another building, but “in state” only in a capital. However, someone who isn’t of such stature–another hero, perhaps–can lie in a capital, like the capitol rotunda, but he won’t be “in state.” In such a case, the deceased is called to be resting “in honor.”
Want to know what a 19th Century funeral is like? Welcome to the parlor:
Notice in the parlor, above, the black covering over the mirror and the black drape behind the portrait of the deceased.
Rob Parker, our docent at the museum, told us that once “funeral parlors” came into being, the “parlor” of a person’s house became the “living room.” He also told us that only Europeans and Americans wear black for mourning. Other countries wear white. “Makes me wonder what they think of our wedding traditions,” he quipped.
Hey–what are the chances you’ll get to go to the funeral of a Pope? Or learn much of anything about him? Well, here’s something interesting for you:
I’m amazed by how much history was housed in that museum. It covered virtually everything, from mummifying practices of Egypt to the reason embalming became necessary during the American civil war; the difference between caskets and coffins, and the making of them; an incredible array of hearses from all eras; exhibits of the funerals of presidents, actors, and athletes; personal stories of people in mourning–like this one, which required a super-large casket:
The story behind this one is heart-breaking, but I’m not sure I can remember all the details. Basically, a couple went on a ski vacation with their daughter, and somehow, the daughter died. The parents were so traumatized, they requested a casket that would hold the entire family. Of course, that raised some eyebrows, because the parents were in excellent health, but the father explained how he and his wife planned to commit a murder-suicide once the casket was built so they could all be buried together. The builders complied, but once the casket was built, the owners had left town with no forwarding address. So–what we have here is the unused casket with an interesting story behind it.
One thing that really struck me about it was how short the people must’ve been. I’d noticed that in other places, too–tours of 19th century homes hold beds that seem to be made for people who never grew beyond 5’3 or so. There’s a story behind that, too, but we’ll save it for later.
The museum pieces weren’t limited to America, Rome, or Egypt. Check these out:
Forgive me for sounding morbid, but I did like seeing the hearses. Some were incredibly ornate:
I don’t know that I’ll ever use much of what I learned in this museum, but it’s in my head if I ever need it. I can be specific in details about whatever funeral scene I draw because of this experience. And details help give life and authenticity to our novels.
Did they have anything on the practice (especially in the south) of family taking pictures of the deceased in their coffin? It isn’t something generally done in the north, but at one time it was quite common in the south. My dad passed in December 1997 and at the funeral home in Ohio, there were many beautiful floral arrangements around his coffin. I mentioned to the funeral director I wished it were appropriate to take a picture (not of my dad, but the flowers). He said when they have family members come from the south to a funeral they often take pictures of the deceased and the people from the north are shocked. I admit that I was a bit shocked when he told me.
Later, I was going through old family photos from the early 1900s. My mom’s family has origins in Alabama and I was surprised to come across pictures of my great grandmother in her coffin. I couldn’t help but smile a bit, remembering what the funeral director told me. Now I’m glad I have the picture in a way LOL. I have no problem taking pictures of gravestones, but people in their coffins, not so much.
I don’t think he mentioned it, Pam. It freaked me out, too, the first time I noticed it happening at a funeral I attended. But it makes sense in a weird way. In general, most Southern families were huge and agrarian. When kids grew up and needed their own land to work, they moved away, sometimes *far* away. Many were too poor to return home often, so pics like that would be mailed to them (or pony-expressed) to answer a couple of questions: what did the decedent look like “after all these years” and did s/he look “natural” in death. Pictures of the flowers and those in attendance would serve as witness to how much the person was loved, but I bet it would also serve the purpose of allowing the distant family member to see other loved ones who attended.
But, don’t quote me on any of this. I haven’t researched it, so I don’t really know.
That makes sense to me. My g-parents both came from farming families in Peterman AL, a tiny railroad town just outside Monroeville, AL. Yep, the hometown of Harper Lee, and setting for the fictional Maynard in TKMB. But that’s another story to tell some other time. Since my g-father’s older brother took ownership of the family farm, Papa had to leave the area to find work and they moved to Mobile where my mom was born. I’m not sure what he did there, but he eventually took my g-mother and mom (age 3) north to Ohio where he found work at Ohio Bell. He only had a sixth grade education but they hired him and he went as high as he could go on little education. Loved working for Ma Bell and stayed there until he retired. They did go back to AL every so often when my mom was a kid, but the trips grew more infrequent and soon they didn’t go back much at all. That’s probably why my gggrandmother’s funeral pictures were taken.
Well, after I reread my answer, it dawned on me that in those days, folks didn’t run to their CVS pharmacy and have copies made of the pics. 😀 I reckon on the occasions when they did get to visit, they took albums.
Love reading about your family history. I could really dive into genealogy if I had time!
Fascinating!!! Pam my family is from Illinois. I remember seeing pictures of my grandfather in his casket in the 60s and my husband deceased sister from the 1940s. She had died of scarlet fever while her mother lay deathly ill. Mom recovered and didn’t get to attend the funeral. It was a precious keepsake to her. I read a blog recently explaining he popularity of photos of the dead sitting in chairs, posing with live family members as keepsakes. Children were often photographed looking lifelike. Some photographers painted eyeballs on the eyelids to make them more lifelike. Now, that was creepy. Some thrid world countries still take pictures of the dead. I recieved one from a pastor in the Philippines when his sweet son of 10 died from spinal TB. I found it helped me grieve his loss.
Painting the eyes on the eyelids is very high on the creepy scale. I have seen lovely photos of stillborn babies in their parents arms that are contemporary. But anyone older than that I would have to take a pause. I did not take a picture of my dad or the flowers by the way. Thing is, to me it never looks like the person as their soul is no longer in their earthly remains.
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Cindy–I’m with you. Painting eyes on the lids is uber-creepy. Shudder.
What an interesting museum.
It was–totally fascinating. Of course, my husband thinks we’re nuts.
There used to be a museum in Springfield, IL with the same name just down the road from the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln is buried. It closed down several years ago, but my husband and I went through it before it did and many of the things in your photos look very familiar. I wonder if the one in Houston bought the items for the one here or if the people moved down south and took all the stuff with them and opened a new museum there?
The one here was fascinating to go though.
The photos thing is rather weird, I think, for most people nowadays. Although, I know a lady whose twins were stillborn and a photographer contacted her and her husband about taking photos. They had them taken and were very glad they did, so I guess it does help. There is an organization that trains professional photographers in every state and many other countries to take these portraits at no charge to the parents. It’s called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. https://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/
Interesting about the photographers, Pearl. Thanks! I don’t know whether the Houston museum and the one that used to be in Springfield are the same. He didn’t mention it.