Sunday, November 30, 2014

The National Funeral Museum: Houston, TX

When I mention that I have been to the National Funeral Museum, most people have the same question.  Why?  Actually, this museum had been on my radar for quite a while but my schedule never allowed me to visit.  They are open every day during the week but only until 4 PM.  They are also open weekends but since I despise going to Houston in the first place, being there over the weekend isn't really an option and usually I am still at work too late to make the 4 PM close.  However, on this trip one of my customers turned me loose early so I set out to find the museum.

The museum is in a sketchy part of town but since one of my customers this week had actually been here and recommended I check it out of possible, I go in. 

I beat the rush.  The funeral I am most concerned about right now is the one of the museum itself.  Admission is a totally reasonable $5 so with these kinds of crowds, I am not sure how they stay open. 
This museum proved to be more than expected from the outside.  It is a well thought out, surprisingly interesting place.  Get ready because this is going to be a picture heavy post.
You enter and exit through the gift shop which mainly contained religious items and t-shirts with puns about being dead.  There are three employees in here, including a security guard who, since I haven't seen anything else yet, seems unnecessary.  I had read earlier in the week that the museum was doing a display on Dracula (I was there the week leading up to Halloween) and that is my primary reason for coming.
If the Dracula display is any indication of how the rest of the museum will be, I am prepared to be disappointed.  There is a hearse (complete with a plastic vulture on top) and some other Halloweenish items in a small area right inside the turnstile.  Behind me was a board with more information about Dracula the person and some QR codes I could have scanned if I had been so inclined.  I wasn't.  There is also a table with some papers and clipboards that turn out to be a scavenger hunt (fitting right?) so I take one.
While looking at the Dracula exhibit there is an unmistakable sound of scraping against wood.  Like someone trying to claw their way out of a coffin.  At least, that is what you think when you are standing around all alone in a funeral museum next to Dracula's hearse.
It is actually a replica woodworkers shop showing what a coffin makers shop would have looked like.  When I went to investigate the sound, I get a glimpse of what is in the main room of the museum.
Lots of hearses.
LOTS of hearses.  Big ones, small ones, old ones, new ones, motorized ones, horse drawn ones,  ornate ones, plain ones.
Hearses for children (like the white one in the previous photo), hearses that carried famous people (they have the actual hearse that transported Grace Kelly), "bus" hearses (hearsi?) like this one that carried not only the deceased, but the entire family to the gravesite.  And...
LOTS of coffins.  Again, all shapes and sizes.
This one was made to fit 2 adults and a child.
The Money Casket once had $1000 in bills but after, no shock here - being broken into - it now only has $643.  It was used to market caskets with items encapsulated in acrylic in the 1970's.
Now I know that a "Basket Case" was someone carried around in a wicker basket after their legs had been amputated.  Not a term I frequently use but I might try to abstain completely in the future.
There are several rooms off the main area and each has a particular focus.
The presidential area contains newspapers, uniforms worn by pallbearers, and various other memorabilia from the funerals of various presidents.  Lincoln, Kennedy and Reagan have the largest displays.  Here is Lincoln lying in his coffin.
I believe there was another sign that said this is a replica gun, not the actual gun, that killed Lincoln.
Next to his coffin they ask you to "Leave your Lincolns".  They are collecting pennies from all of the different years (sometimes more than one if there was a change).  I checked but the 4 pennies I had were already represented so I left them in the collection box next to this.
Another room was set up for military and police/fire.  There was information on the making of the Vietnam Memorial and an entire room devoted to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In here I sat and watched a video about the tomb and how the guard is selected.  They go through rigorous training and it is a voluntary position  typically lasting 12-18 months that they can ask to leave at any time.  They take exactly 21 steps as they march and then turn to face the Tomb for another 21 seconds to represent the 21 gun salute.  The uniform (replica on the mannequin) must be returned when they move on to another assignment.
A section was devoted to funeral traditions including clothing, flowers, quilts and other items.
A Victorian era home set up for a viewing.  The mirror over the fireplace is covered as was the clock.  The strangest thing in this section was a series of photos of a woman modeling "funeral shrouds" available for purchase in the 1920s.  That would be an interesting addition to your resume:  Funeral Shroud Model.
Sections for celebrities and the movies. 
They had 3 large glass cases of funeral programs, like this one for Farrah Fawcett.
The crews of the Challenger and Columbia were in the celebrity section, not the military section.  I was a junior in high school watching on television at school when Challenger exploded.
You are encouraged to kiss this replica of Marilyn Monroe's crypt, which apparently really happens at her actual crypt in California.  I passed on that offer.
I did take this quiz on celebrities and did not get a single answer correct.  I should have called David, he would probably get them all right.  Right next to this was a list of epitaphs and a tombstone shaped piece of paper for you to write you own to leave behind.
The section on the History of Embalming was mainly focused on Egypt.
They also have a replica mummy in this area along with other artifacts and lots of information on the walls to read regarding mummification and embalming.  I have seen the movie "The Mummy" a couple of times so I bypass most of the reading.  (There was different area devoted to embalming from the Civil War over by the Victorian room.)
Finally a section devoted to traditions from around the world like this home decorated for the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico.  There was also a pimped out hearse from 1970s Japan and a whole bunch of unusual coffins.
And biographical information on Kane Quaye who was one of the dominant designers/makers of these unique caskets.
The museum also has rooms dedicated to a traveling exhibit which, at this time, is about The Pope (does the The in The Pope need to be capitalized or is the Pope okay?).  This is a very large exhibit taking up multiple rooms and it isn't just on funerals.  You learn how The Pope is elected, what their outfits are called, all about the Swiss Guard (you actually have to be Swiss by birth, you can't just be an American living in Switzerland for example) and there is even a replica Pope-mobile.
Much of the information is slanted towards Pope John Paul II, which I suppose makes sense due to his recentness and popularity.
He wouldn't wear the traditional red shoes of The Pope but they did bury him in them.  I wonder how he feels about that.  Personally, I will haunt the person(s) responsible for making me wear any kind of shoes when I am dead.  Or sleeves.
The scavenger hunt I picked up turned out to be completely about The Pope section.  I actually had to go through twice to find most of the answers and still had one I never found.  Because this is a funeral museum they do get into that here including how the Fisherman Ring is destroyed immediately with a special hammer (to prevent forged documents) and how the apartment where The Pope lives is sealed off with a wax seal until another Pope is elected.
I was shocked at the size of this room all to show how The Pope is set up for viewing.  And there was another this size just beyond with The Pope now in his coffin with a cardinal standing by and another kneeling in prayer.  In one of the hallways there is the actual recording of the news of the death of Pope John Paul II playing on a loop.
On the wall there is a lot more information including the names of all past Popes and the dates they served (is that the right word?), what the colors mean (cardinal, bishop, etc.) and of course, information about the coffins of The Pope.  That's right...coffins, as in more than one.  The Pope is buried in 3 separate coffins.  The first is made of cypress and tied with three red silk ribbons.  That casket is placed in a solid lead casket and then that is placed in another made of Douglas fir.  The lead and fir caskets have a bronze plate with identical information on them including the name, length of life and length of service as Pope.  All written in Latin, of course.
I was inside about a hour and a half and outside, not much changed.  I didn't see the van owners inside but since this place is much bigger than you think it is going to be with lots of separate rooms, that doesn't really surprise me.
I am glad I finally went to this museum.  I would recommend it to anyone in the area who expressed even a mild interest.  It was much more interesting and serious than I ever imagined.  I really expected something more kitschy, along the lines of the Dracula display.  There was a lot more to see than I covered here especially in the form of documents and smaller items like medical equipment used for embalming.  I could have easily spent another hour and still not seen or read it all.
I don't know how I could come out of there and not think about what I want to have happen when it is my time.  David and I have discussed this in the past and there is little we can agree on other than the fact that if he outlives me, he can do what he wants, I won't be here to object anyway.  For example, I want to be cremated, which he seems fine with, but I don't want him to take possession of my ashes afterwards.  Just leave them there, let them dispose of them however.  Those ashes are not me and spreading them somewhere or keeping them won't change that.  He just cannot wrap his mind around this part.  I get that, I really do. 
But what he (or my children, my grandchildren, my parents - whomever ends up in charge at that point) better remember is the part about the shoes and the sleeves.  It doesn't matter that I am being cremated.  Once I am deceased, NO ONE better put me in a top that has sleeves (a form of torture as far as I am concerned) or shoes ever again.  If that happens, Meriam won't be the only ghost making trouble around here.

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