National Museum of Funeral History
It's easy to imagine a National Museum of Funeral History in some eerie Victorian mansion -- an old funeral home in New England, perhaps -- with dead leaves blowing across the lawn and ominous, creaky front steps.
Instead, the museum is in a blocky warehouse of a building in what looks like a former industrial park, baking in the bright South Texas sun. Surrounding it are acres of sprawling town homes, with young families unloading groceries from minivans and kids shooting hoops in their driveways. We can only guess what these people think of their odd neighbor with the words "Funeral" and "Museum" in big letters on its side.
The museum, opened in 1992 by visionary undertaker Robert L. Waltrip, has a large parking lot, but when we arrived we were its only visitors. It is quiet as a tomb inside, which, given the displays, is appropriate. The utilitarian building has the ambiance of an aircraft hanger, but you won't notice it -- such is the scope and wonder of its collection.
A good example of the grandeur of the museum is its Deaths of the Popes gallery, which opened in 2008 and features not only John Paul II's bulletproof Popemobile, but also an exact reproduction of his triple-nested coffin. The museum had to build an addition just to accommodate all the displays. Life-size dioramas, for example, recreate the Pope lying in his coffin in the Vatican and John Paul II's burial crypt beneath St. Peter's Basilica.
One-of-a-kind coffins are everywhere in the main exhibit hall, including one embedded with hundreds of dollars of U.S. coins and currency. Little signs constantly remind the curious, "Do not open." That warning is probably unnecessary atop the "ventilating coffin" (for putrid corpses), and no one needs to lift the lid of Snow White's clear glass casket, or the coffin made of the same greenish glass used in old Coke bottles. The "casket for three" has been thoughtfully propped open; it was made in the 1930s for a married couple in Durango, Colorado, who intended to kill themselves after their baby died. They didn't, and the coffin ended up here.
The gaudiest human cargo containers in the museum are its custom-designed Ghanaian coffins -- the largest collection of them outside of Africa. Similarly spunky is the Day of the Dead exhibit, featuring a full-size Mexican home filled with colorful decorations and altars, while outside the front door stands someone dressed in a skeleton suit.
Hearses -- there are dozens of them -- have all been restored to corpse-carrying order. A gaudy Japanese model (a custom 1972 Toyota Crown station wagon) catches the eye, as does a fanciful hearse for babies, a 19th century casket sleigh, and the official state funeral hearses of Presidents Ford and Reagan.
Best of all is the huge 1916 Packard graveyard bus, created to eliminate funeral processions. It could carry a coffin, pallbearers, and 20 mourners. It was climbing a San Francisco hill when the weight of all those bodies in the back caused it to tip over, sending people (and a coffin) tumbling onto the street. Quickly retired, it spent the next 40 years as the home of a California ranch hand before the museum restored it and put it on display.
The timeline of the History of Embalming exhibit extends from a full-size replica of King Tut's gaudy sarcophagus to a vintage 1920s electric embalming machine, which looks like a canister vacuum. Next to it is a life-size recreation of the embalming tent of Dr. Thomas Holmes, "father of U.S. embalming," who followed Civil War armies so that he could embalm dead soldiers on the battlefield and ship them home.
There is much, much more to see. The Thanks for the Memories gallery features funeral memorabilia from celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Jackie Kennedy, as well as the original marble slab from Marilyn Monroe's tomb (A sign explains that constant "touching and kissing" wore it out and compelled its replacement).
Another gallery focuses exclusively on presidential mortality, showcasing the original Eternal Flame that burned at JFK's Arlington grave until 1998. A wax Lincoln lies in a duplicate of his coffin, "one of only two in existence today;" nearby is an exact replica of the gun that killed him. In another case is George Washington's funeral bill.
Not all "national" museums live up to that standard, but the National Museum of Funeral History will wow anyone interested in its admittedly specialized field. Also to be commended is its gift shop, which has a surprisingly good time selling death with items such as "In Dog Years I'm Dead" t-shirts, salt and pepper shaker skulls, and a sippy cup shaped like a tombstone.