Tag Archives: National Museum of Funeral History

New Abraham Lincoln Features Debut at the National Museum of Funeral History

NOTE: You will recall that the curator of the museum was a guest with us earlier this year.
Celebrating the life and legacy of our nation’s 16th President in honor of the 150th anniversary of his death and funeral

HOUSTON, TEXAS – April 15, 2015 – The National Museum of Funeral History celebrates the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln and commemorates the 150th anniversary of his death (on April 15, 1865) and subsequent funerals (in early May 1865) with the addition of new Lincoln-related artifacts and displays to the Museum’s Presidential Funerals exhibit.

The National Museum of Funeral History is adding a new section to its Presidential Funerals exhibit entitled “The Faces of Abe,” a chronological portrait history of Lincoln featuring 20 images which illustrate the change in Lincoln’s appearance over a nearly 20 year period, featuring both his pre-presidency and presidency years. Visitors will see firsthand how Lincoln’s appearance naturally matured in the years leading up to his presidency and then witness the drastic transformation, particularly to his facial features, over the course of his four years as president, as his role as our nation’s leader took its toll on him.

Additionally, the Museum will display a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 “death mask,” the original of which was cast using wet plaster to the face after his assassination. This exact replica, which even shows the bullet indention on Lincoln’s scalp where he was shot, was created by a local Houston area artist. Historically, death masks and their “life mask” counterparts were often created by sculptors or portraitists on either living subjects or the recently deceased before the age of photography to immortalize a person’s likeness. During his lifetime, Lincoln also had two life masks of himself casted.

In conjunction with Lincoln’s life mask and portrait history, the Museum also will feature the diaries of Anna B. Temple, a young 14-year-old girl living in Chester County, Pennsylvania in the 1800s. In January 1859, Temple began Ann Templekeeping a diary and continued her entries through the Civil War in 1865. These accounts were published in 1990 and include two pages of her own report on hearing the news of Lincoln’s death. The Museum has copies of Temple’s diaries available for sale in the Museum’s gift shop.

For the past year, the Museum has been “Looking for Lincoln” as part of its “Leave us your Lincoln” campaign, which encouraged visitors to leave their “Lincoln cash” – five dollar bills and /or pennies – to help support the Museum’s efforts to bring more Lincoln artifacts to the Presidential Funeral’s exhibit. Additionally, the Museum was relying on museum-goers to help fill the Lincoln Penny Folder, which features pennies that have been minted from as far back as 1909, as that was the first year Lincoln was ever featured on U.S. currency. As an unexpected result of this “call to action,” the Museum wound up receiving coins (and even some stamps!) from contributors around the country, including a collection of rare Lincoln coins and stamps from the early 1900s. Sure to be a hit amongst coin and stamp collectors, the rare collection will debut on June 20 as a new permanent feature to the Presidential Funerals exhibit. A few highlights from the collection – a penny from 1910 and an authenticated collection of six stamps commemorating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, including a 4¢ Lincoln stamp from 1959 in honor of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, a 25¢ Frederick Douglas stamp from 1967, a 13¢ Harriet Tubman stamp from 1978 and more. Additionally, coin enthusiasts will marvel at the Museum’s “Money Casket,” a custom-made casket made with authentic dollar bills and coins, featured in the Coffins & Caskets of the Past exhibit.

The National Museum of Funeral History Where They Put the Fun Back In Funeral


Authentic mourning clothing on display illustrates the strict rules that governed the life of a woman following her husband's death;  as shown here.

Authentic mourning clothing on display illustrates the strict rules that governed the life of a woman following her husband’s death; as shown here.

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