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Replica of Lincoln's coffin.
The Lincoln exhibit includes a replica of his casket.

Museum of Funeral Customs (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Springfield, Illinois

This museum was killed off in early 2009, reportedly by a poorly managed trust fund. The replica Lincoln casket was eventually passed on to the Kibbe Hancock Heritage Museum in Carthage, Illinois. There will always be funerals, so this museum may come back to life, someday....

The most popular tourist tomb in America belongs to Abraham Lincoln (and his lucky nose). So when a piece of property just outside of the cemetery entrance became available, the Illinois Funeral Directors Association snapped it up. For years they'd been seeking a good location for their funeral industry museum.

Embalming fluid.
A number of embalming brands and formulations were popular.

"It gave us instant visibility," said museum director Jon Austin. "Some of the neighbors were dissatisfied, but I think we fit in rather well."

The purpose of the Museum of Funeral Customs -- a big room sectioned into display areas -- is to "demystify" the funeral industry, according to Jon. It is a restrained and very quiet place. This may disappoint those accustomed to the Halloween fun house approach to mortality, since the museum has no meat hook exhibits or half-eaten corpses popping out of caskets. There is, however, a great deal of macabre memorabilia, and visitors are encouraged to explore it at their leisure, guided by free exhibit brochures such as Formaldehyde: Its Development and History and The Frenchman Who Influenced American Embalming.

Embalming is in fact the first stop on the self-guided tour, which "gets the least comfortable topic out of the way" according to Jon. One highlight is a recreated 1928 "preparation room," complete with a corpse draining table and a checkerboard-pattern floor (Jon noted that all-black floors are best for puddle visibility). Half-empty bottles of embalming fluid that you really don't want to touch are lined up atop a shipping crate, next to several hospital-white embalming machines that perform the same function as the oil pump at a Jiffy Lube. A "Pioneers of Embalming" wall enshrines people such as Thomas Holmes, who juiced over 4,000 dead Civil War soldiers on the battlefield, and Felix Sullivan, who embalmed Presidents Garfield and Grant but was expelled from the 1893 Missouri Funeral Directors Convention because he was drunk.

Model of Lincoln's funeral entrance.
Ornate model of Lincoln's funeral.

The American funeral industry, it turns out, is gadget-happy, and the museum showcases many of the products that have served it over the years. There are "casket veils" to keep people (and bugs) from touching bodies during viewings, casket-side lamps with special pink shades to make corpses look more lifelike, a baby coffin on wheels in the shape of a bassinet, and an "ice casket" for bodies that didn't make it to the embalmer on time.

The "Funeral Music" exhibit has oversized eight-track cassettes that can play endlessly, along with a souvenir program of all of the tunes heard at Ronald Reagan's funeral (Among them Battle Hymn of the Republic and Swing Low Sweet Chariot).

Chocolate coffins.
Souvenir chocolate coffins.

"Clothing The Dead" showcases tuxedos for the male dead and stockings for the late ladies, and notes that the declining popularity of open caskets has led to a parallel decline in the postmortem fashion industry.

Jon, who is a walking corpus of information, filled us in on the defiant tomb of Mr. Accordion just up the road. Beyond it stands the all-important Lincoln Tomb. The Museum of Funeral Customs devotes an entire exhibit to Abe's funeral, as well as to the subsequent unsuccessful attempts to kidnap his body. An exact replica of Lincoln's coffin serves as the museum's centerpiece, six feet five inches long and decorated with silver shamrock studs by its Irish cabinetmaker.

"People who come here from France and Germany say, 'So what's the big deal with Abraham Lincoln?'" Jon told us. "Most people in Europe don't know who he is and don't care."

Although the official motto of the museum is "Death is only the beginning," its gift shop sells t-shirts with the more jolly "I Dig the Museum of Funeral Customs." Also available are locally-made miniature chocolate coffins -- the museum's most popular souvenir. Open the lid and you'll find a chocolate mummy, which makes these chocolate coffins better than the chocolate coffins at the National Museum of Funeral History, which are solid.

We asked Jon if anything at the museum was so odd that it caught him off guard. "Goths want to lie in the coffins," he answered. And with coffins like the 600-pound Seamless Copper Deposit on display -- "the casket of choice among America's wealthiest families," according to its placard -- who can blame them?

Museum of Funeral Customs

Was SE of Illinois State Fairgrounds, at the entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln is buried.
Closed in early 2009.

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