Funeral traditions ranging from those associated with ancient Egypt to Pope John Paul II are the subject of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas. Founded in 1992, this museum explores the history of funeral practices and related social customs during the period of mourning.
Preparation for the hallmark exhibit began in 2005 as the museum collaborated with the Vatican to present Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes. It took three years but opened to the public in 2008. The exhibit is a combination of original items, exact reproductions, photos and the actual Popemobile of John Paul II used during his 1982 visit to the United Kingdom. Vestments worn and items used by the pope are shown with accompanying descriptions. The display includes the authentic uniforms worn by the Swiss Guard as they keep watch while the deceased pope lies in state in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Popes are customarily entombed in a coffin that is nested inside two other caskets. Each of the three is sealed shut. John Paul II was buried under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica due to the possibility of him being canonized. This display is particularly significant now that Pope John Paul II (papacy 1978-2005) and Pope John XXIII (papacy 1958-1963) are to be canonized April 27, 2014.
The museum also explores the history of funerals and the socially acceptable ways of grieving in 19th Century Mourning Customs. A deceased person was laid out in the downstairs parlor of their home for family and friends to pay their last respects. During the Victorian Era, it was popular for families to use a special clock to mark the death of a relative. When a person died, the clock was stopped at the time of death. The picture on the front of the clock would have names of deceased family members handwritten on a large headstone or monument. All the mirrors had to be covered as long as the corpse was in the house. If a mirror fell and broke, it was a sign that someone else in the house would die soon.
The funeral was often a graveside service but could also be held in the family parlor. When the body was removed from the home, it had to be carried out feet first. If it were carried out head first, then it was facing the house and could lure some of the living to follow it in death. Jewelry and decorative wreaths were often made with hair of the deceased that was found in combs and brushes. It was woven in intricate patterns by professional weavers, then framed and hung on the wall. Hair wreaths are a common sight in 19th-century history houses throughout the United States.
Immediate family members were expected to wear all black clothing during the period of mourning for at least a year and often longer. During the 19th century, several books were written on how to mourn and included information on what to wear and how to act in public. Mourning clothes were sold ready-made or off-the-rack during the Civil War. If a woman could not afford them, she was to dye her clothes black.
Transporting a coffin to the cemetery is the subject of the Historical Hearses exhibit. The display includes an elaborate horse-drawn carriage made in 1850 from Germany. Other hearses displayed are additional horse-drawn carriages including a miniature replica of the funeral procession of King Louis XVIII in 1832. The museum has quite a collection of automobiles designed as hearses such as a 1916 Packard funeral bus and a 1921 Rock Falls hearse that is 19 feet long. There is also a restored 1930s railway cart that was used when caskets were transported via freight trains.
The National Museum of Funeral History also focuses on traditions in other countries outside the U.S. There are separate exhibits about fantasy coffins used in Ghana, traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and traditional Japanese funerals. For more information on how this museum explores the history of funeral customs, the link to the museum’s schedule is provided below.
By: Cynthia Collins