Tuesday, August 19, 2014

There's a National Museum of Funeral History? And it's in Houston?

This past weekend The Lovely Spouse had work that he needed to do in Houston.  It was the kind of work that only takes maybe an hour to accomplish. Well, it's a 2 hour drive so I couldn't leave well enough alone, I had to add something to the trip to make it fun. And by something I mean we just had to use this as an excuse to visit the National Museum of Funeral History (the website looks MUCH better on mobile - coincidentally they told me they're hiring for a new web designer, if you're interested). Why did I have to visit the NMFH?  Well, because it's consistently rated as one of the most unusual and interesting things to do in Houston. This is a city that has an Art Car Museum and beercan house, and this is the most interesting thing? Sign me up!

Located just off of 45 on the North side of town, the NMFH is not a pretty building by anyone's standards. In fact it looks like a 70s era warehouse, which it probably is.  The entrance is equally underwhelming, however you do get to enter through a cute little give shop.

After you enter there's no guidance and you're just free to wander around as you please.  Pictures are allowed.  It's not like I was hiding the camera under my shirt or anything. Much of the museum is an open area filled with hearses through the years and a number of notable caskets. There are some explanations to things, but no real flow to the museum.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Just in case you were wondering about taking it with you, this casket has over $650 embedded within it. 

I thought this casket was really cool.  It's entirely glass, with metal fittings.  The color comes from the fabric lining.  Evidently the lid is so heavy it has to have special shock absorbers to prevent it from cracking when closed.
Hearses used to double as ambulances. 

And I found out the origin of the phrase "basket case". Click on the picture to enbiggen.
This vehicle has a very interesting story, below. Well they tried to solve a problem, but things didn't quite work out as planned.

This hearse is notable for the exquisite hand-crafted woodwork and wonderful restoration. 
All of these were horse-drawn.  Traditionally white was a color indicating a child was being mourned. 
What's interesting (to me) is how hearses resemble the classic auto stylings of their times. The grey on on the right here is the hearse used to transport Grace Kelly to her final resting place.
This hearse came from 1970s Japan.

Extreme detailing inside and out.
A little warning in case you get a little too curious.  There were a lot of very interesting caskets and I can imagine the impulse to peer inside can become overwhelming to some. 
In addition to the hearses and caskets there were some interesting exhibits. Alright, this first is more caskets, but I believe the also count as folk art.

There was also an exhibit on funeral cards.  These are small cards and/or programs given at funerals.  The exhibit contained funeral cards and memory books for famous people.

This one is for Rodney Dangerfield.
There was an exhibit on the history of embalming. Not as informative as I would have liked. It didn't really explain very well the process of embalming, however it did cover an historical account of how US Americans mourn through the years. 

A large, well-planned and more modern exhibit is on the funeral of Pope John Paul II.  I was in the airport getting ready to board a flight to Rome when I found out the Pope had died. The following 2 weeks, The Lovely Spouse and I saw much of the funeral proceedings and beginning of the Interregnum.  It was an experience I hope I never forget.  The exhibit at the NMFH fills in details that those of us in the general public would not have seen, and many that we might not have known. Some of the items are originals, but many are obviously reproductions.

Seals for Papal apartment and the silver hammer to destroy the Papal ring.

Mannequin Pope laying in photograph St. Peter's Basilica with mannequin Swiss Guards.

Recreation of the Papal coffin lid. 

Recreation of the 3-layer coffin.

Recreation of the JP II crypt under St. Peter's Basilica.

Aaaaand....the Popemobile. 
The final exhibit detailed the funerals of the Presidents and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A reliquary containing President Lincoln's hair.

The hearse that transported President Reagan around California. 

The uniform worn by the soldiers standing (and marching) watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

And, to wrap up the museum, a funeral card/program from George Washington's funeral. 
In all it was an interesting museum to visit.  The entirety of the museum does not stand up to modern museum standards, however, on the whole, the museum is worthwhile to visit for historical value. You don't have to have in-depth knowledge of the funeral industry to understand everything and you don't have to be an emo-Goth to enjoy the visit.  The museum is not morbid.

Admission is only $10 and as you exit through the gift shop you can even grab a rootbeer.  

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