Spooky in the City is a new series on Spooky Little Halloween. Each month Miranda will take you to a local haunt in Houston, her hometown, then teach you how to find similar spooky spots in your city, state or country!
Did you know there’s a National Museum of Funeral History in the U.S.? I sure didn’t – and I was even more surprised to learn it’s right here in Houston, the city I grew up in! I’d been dying to go (okay, yeah…pun intended), and when Tui Snider emailed me out of the blue last summer and asked if I’d be up for meeting her there, I leaped at the chance.
We had a great time slowly roaming the many exhibits and learning a ton about the history of funerals neither one of us knew.
About the National Museum of Funeral History
The National Museum of Funeral History, located in Houston, TX, opened in 1992 as a place visitors could learn more about one of man’s oldest cultural rituals. Founder Robert L. Waltrip had dreamed of opening such a museum for 25 years as a way to educate the public on and preserve the heritage of death care. The 30,500 square foot space houses many artifacts that may have otherwise been discarded, from vintage hearses and coffins to Victorian embalming relics and even funeral programs of celebrities.
Presently, the museum is the largest educational center on funerary customs in the United States, and perhaps even the world. It houses 14 permanent exhibits on a broad range of topics, frequently announces new exhibits, like its history of cremation coming in 2018, and even includes a partnership with the Vatican honoring the lives and deaths of Popes. (They have the Popemobile used by St. John Paul II in 1982, among other artifacts!)
My visit to the National Museum of Funeral History
Here is a quick tour of my afternoon at the National Museum of Funeral History…and some of my favorite exhibits!
I’ll admit, this was probably one of my favorite museum sections to wander, and I took a TON of photos to prove it. The evolution of hearses was fascinating, as was the attention to detail on some of the oldest items in the collection.
This particular model is a horse-drawn hearse from 1832. It’s believed to be the oldest restored hearse in the United States!
This 1920s Rockfalls Hearse includes six different types of wood. The detail carved into the side were stunning.
Hearses had to be incredibly versatile vehicles before the invention of the car. This late 1800s sleigh was one of the coolest (yup, pun intended again) in the collection.
This funeral bus, from 1916, was large enough to hold a casket and 20 people. It’s believed to be the only surviving funeral vehicle of its kind.
I don’t remember which hearse this came from, but I was stunned by the details.
Coffins and Caskets of the Past
In addition to hearses, the National Museum of Funeral History has a large collection of caskets and coffins. Like the quintessential funeral vehicle, it was also interesting to see how caskets and coffins have evolved over the decades – and even centuries.
One of the most interesting displays was the Marsellus Casket Company, a set which mimics what a real-life casket company would have looked like in the late 1800s.
You know the phrase “basket case”? Did you know it came from the Civil War? Soldiers who were injured and required amputation were placed in large baskets, like the one on the left, to be carried around in so they would, ideally, avoid disease and infection. They were called basket cases. If they passed away, they were buried in the basket casket.
More than a century later, Americans had updated to glass coffins, like the one on the right. These were designed to make coffins air-tight. Unfortunately, they were often so heavy that the lid would crack.
Ever heard of an ice casket? As these items evolved over the year, caretakers realized the need to take better care of the body. Prior to embalming, the dead were placed in ice caskets, circa 1850, to help preserve their body until burial.
This coffin was hard to miss due to its size. It is large enough for three people…and for a rather tragic reason.
After losing their only child, a couple decided they would commit suicide together to join him or her in Heaven. In preparation, they requested a local funeral home owner have a custom coffin designed that all three could fit inside.
The couple later changed their minds about their plans and soon moved to another state, leaving the coffin behind.
Following the popularity of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” movie in the 1940s, a casket company created this glass coffin in homage to the film. It was displayed at a convention for funeral directors, but the idea didn’t seem to catch on. The casket was purchased by the Heights Funeral Home in Houston and eventually donated to the National Museum of Funeral History.
One of the final exhibits we wandered was unique coffins and caskets from around the world. This KLM one caught my eye since my dad frequently traveled on the airline when I was growing up.
Crabs, crustaceans and fish – oh my!
19th Century Mourning & the History of Embalming
The final exhibit I found fascinating was from the Victorian era. Known for their heightened interest in death, the Victorians had unique customs for honoring the dead which is explored in this exhibit as well as the history of embalming, which became a common practice at the turn of the century.
The Victorians associated many, many social customs with death. Death also had a huge influence on Victorian decor.
Public grieving was considered the norm and required everything from the proper clothing and jewelry to the right shoes and even hairpins.
Dr. Thomas Holmes, the father of embalming in America, is heavily featured in the museum as well. This exhibit includes a full set-up of what a typical embalming room in the early 1900s would have looked like.
See it yourself:
National Museum of Funeral History
415 Barren Springs Dr.
Houston, TX 77090
Open Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday, 12 – 5 p.m.
Note: times are as of Feb. 2018
How to find odd museums near you:
Wondering what strange or weird museums might be in your part of the world? Here are a few key phrases you can search with your city, state or country’s name to find spooky spots near you:
- weird museum + CITY/STATE/COUNTRY
- odd museum + CITY/STATE/COUNTRY
- offbeat museum + CITY/STATE/COUNTRY
- strange museum + CITY/STATE/COUNTRY
- unusual museum + CITY/STATE/COUNTRY
What offbeat museum is near you?
Share your find in the comments, esp. if it’s somewhere you’ve visited before! I’d love to learn more about some of the world’s unusual museums to explore.
Make every day Halloween 🎃
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