Death, Be Not Silent

While in Houston for the 2014 Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference this past weekend, I took the time to check out Houston’s museum scene.  The most unusual museum was easily the National Museum of Funeral History.  (Are you kidding?  Of corpse, I decided I had to see this...)

 Outside museum.  (photo: L. Pyne)

Outside museum.  (photo: L. Pyne)

 Museum entrance.  (photo: L. Pyne)

Museum entrance.  (photo: L. Pyne)

The NMFH claims to house the largest collection of funeral-related artifacts in the United States.  (Museum motto: “Any day above ground is a good one.”)  Stepping into the museum from the admission booth, you step into funerary practices of the Cowboy West, courtesy of a wooden coffin, wooden cross, and a pair of boots.  To the left, there are plaques commemorating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and to the right, are a variety of twentieth-century funerary vehicles.  The museum’s other exhibits range from celebrity death, to casket construction, and an entire quadrant is devoted to the Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes. 

 "The Last Tip of My Hat" Death in the Cowboy West. (photo: L. Pyne)

"The Last Tip of My Hat" Death in the Cowboy West. (photo: L. Pyne)

The museum is a darkened showroom and the artifacts – hearses, coffins, funeral programs, replicas, memorabilia – are presented in neat rows, rather like a cemetery.  Dioramas are scattered throughout the 35,500 square feet of museum space – celebrating solemn slumber. 

The museum is, in a word, bizarre.  (Or grave, if you will.)  One part Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, one part anthropology, and one part outreach education about funerary practices, the museum seems to hit all of death’s high points.  Most unexpected, however, are the subtle sounds of death that seep from the exhibits.

 History of Embalming.  (photo: L. Pyne)

History of Embalming.  (photo: L. Pyne)

In the History of Embalming, there’s a recorded narration of early embalming practices during the Civil War.  (Described as the “North-South Conflict.”)  In Celebrity Death, Bob Hope greets visitors signing “Thanks for the Memories” on an infinite loop.  Walking by a plaque about NASA and the life of Neal Armstrong reminds visitors that, “One small step for man” was a “leap for mankind.”  Voices from the admission booth and gift shop carry into large, open space and iPhones cameras click constantly, echoing off the walls.  The only time sound is muffled is in the Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes where faux marble walls deaden other noises.  At one point, a subtle, but insistent scraping noise registered with me – something was being drawn over a wooden board again and again.  The faint scratching built to a climatic crescendo and I half-expected a corpse to bust Poe-like from one of the coffins an aisle over.  (It turned out to be a recorded saw cutting boards from the carpentry of coffins diorama.)

 Celebrity Death, "Thanks for the Memories" (photo: L. Pyne)

Celebrity Death, "Thanks for the Memories" (photo: L. Pyne)

 Great placards. (photo: L. Pyne)

Great placards. (photo: L. Pyne)

There may be many things associated with death and funerary practices at the National Museum of Funeral History – the sounds of death in a museum, however, are curious, intentional or not.