This week on The Collectors Show we learn about collecting funeral and mortuary items. To listen to the Collectors Show, go to www.webtalkradio.net or iTunes.
You may recall a few weeks ago I mentioned in the news segment that there were a number of museums that were, non-traditional. The National Museum of Funeral History was one of them and their president is who we will be talking with today. I like to talk with people from museums because most started with a collection that belonged to someone or was inspired by someone and that is again the case this week. We will be talking with Genevieve Keeney who is the president of the National Museum of Funeral History, which is located in Houston, Texas.
When I first read about the museum, I thought it was a Halloween attraction. After all the word, “funeral” has a lot of baggage attached to it. Genevieve said it was like climbing a mountain to get people to recognize that the museum was about honoring deceased loved ones and their memories and not a seasonal attraction. This was and is an ancient tradition. She felt like this was an association she did not want, until about 3 years ago.
The museum did attract more attention during October, so she decided it was O.K. to be associated with Halloween as a way to raise money for charity. So in the name of good works and generosity they now have an annual “haunted house”. According to Genevieve they put the “fun” back in funeral.
The collection started with a Mr. R.L. Waltrip who was the founder and chairman of Service Corporation of America. Service Corp is in the funeral home and cemetery business on a very big scale. While building up his business and buying privately owned funeral homes, their equipment was being discarded. What do you do with an old embalming machine? Mr. Waltrip saw that so much of his industry’s history was literally being thrown out and he was not happy about it. He wanted a place to tell the story about the tradition, science and advancement of his trade. So he founded the museum. Funerals reflect culture and how people celebrate and commemorate the life of their family and friends. We share memories and honor the fact that there is a void left in our lives with the person who is gone. While this is not a traditional collection (like stamps or coins) it is still one that is culturally significant.
So much of the science associated with funerals deals with chemistry and that chemistry with embalming. The goal is to present loved ones in a way that makes their appearance such that it is a good and last memory for the loved ones. It is part science and part art with little room for error as Genevieve explains.
Two of the most interesting exhibits at the museum deal with the evolution of embalming, starting with the Egyptians. Later, hand pumps, gravity bottles and now machinery inject embalming chemicals into the deceased. Progress marches on.
Hearses, they are not just cars
The hearse collection at the museum starts with the horse drawn hearse, through to the hand cranked first automobiles through to the hearses of today. And big engines? Yes, the engines from the mid-twentieth century were enormous. They have the hoods up so car enthusiasts can look at the motors.
Caskets or Coffins and What is the Difference?
There is a difference and it deals with the shape of the lid. Coffins are contour to the body, wide at the top and narrower at the bottom. Caskets are square and the lid is a single piece that comes off in one piece. Of course now there are combinations or hybrids (my word) of the classic coffin/casket design.
Fantasy from Ghana
These are caskets made to reflect what the person achieved in this life and what they hope to achieve in the next. They look like garden sculptures or part of a ride at an amusement park. They are nothing like what we in the U.S. expect to see at a funeral, but that is not a bad thing, just a culturally different thing. These style caskets are not allowed in churches but are still popular, though services with them have to be outside. There are several of these in the collection.
Saved by the Bells Inside the Coffin
During the 14th and 15th century there was the realization that, whoops, we buried someone alive. Lacking the technology and skill to know that someone was still alive prior to burial, inventors did the next best thing and tied a string was tied to the finger of the deceased. The string was attached to a series of pulleys that rang a bell, when or if the deceased started to move. Hence, the expression “saved by the bell”. No records about how many people were saved exist but it is safe to say enough were mistakenly buried to make it worthwhile.
In addition to the haunted house, there is a fall Dracula event. I do not know about anyone else, but me dressed as Dracula at the museum is going to look really good on my Face Book page. In June, 2015 the Professional Car Society will be there with fire trucks, ambulances, hearses and the ambulance/hearse combination. I’m not sure how I feel about the ambulance hearse combo. I picture someone changing the sign on the car while en-route to the hospital when their passenger does not make it. Yikes.
Stay up to date with everything going on by visiting their page at www.NMSH.org