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The Mausoleum Museum

A wide-eyed tour of Houston's memorial to grateful dead heads

North of Houston, sprawled on the sort of land that looks like it ought to be an industrial park but isn't yet, across the street from a plot of anonymous and lonely-looking apartments and a Stop N Go, and just a quick drive down I-45 from the mammoth Resthaven Memorial Gardens, sits this country's single largest monument to the paraphernalia and packaging of death. Here, housed in a plain-looking brown-brick and smoked-glass single-story complex, resides the conglomerate American Funeral Service Training Center, the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Services, and the American Funeral Service Museum. The museum -- despite what would appear to be poor vacation-destination potential -- is open to the visiting public seven days a week.

Conventional wisdom holds that the funeral service, as a cultural ritual observed in the U.S. and Canada, is practiced not for the benefit of the dead -- who are, of course, lately past enjoying festivities of any sort -- but for the grieving survivors. Conventional wisdom may well be true. But if the funeral itself encourages acceptance and solace for bereaved family members and loved ones, it's the funeral industry that gets to keep all the really cool stuff. The industry keeps it here.

You enter the lobby, pay a $5 admission fee for the self-guided tour, walk down a long corridor lined with private rooms (including the Elder Davis Inc. Cremation Merchandising Room) and emerge facing an alcove framing a bronze bust of Robert L. Waltrip, founder of the Houston-based Service Corporation International and owner of over 700 mortuaries and funeral homes in the U.S. and Canada. Surrounding the bust are flagstones and floorstones etched with the names of the various hearse builders, casket manufacturers, funeral dry-goods purveyors and private donors whose largesse funded the museum's opening on October 22, 1992.

The complex is dedicated to Waltrip by his family, and they've managed to honor Robert's potentially morbid legacy with a display that's downright cheery. Step into the large display hall, with its bright lights, clean, white walls and industrial gray carpet, and you might get the impression that death -- and funerals and corpses and all the other attendant nastiness -- is something that happened a long time ago, but is now safely behind us. Sort of like the Great Depression, or World War I.

More like the Jazz Age, though. Big-band nostalgia from the 1930s through the 50s -- Tommy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters, a bit of Judy Garland -- is pumped into the room through loudspeakers in the corners, and it's difficult not to dance your way through the displays. Discreet observation cameras ringing the room contribute a helpful sense of restraint.

Here are caskets of all stripes. A model Egyptian sarcophagus. Miniature unlined salesman's samples. Cramped Civil War-era cast-iron caskets. Adult caskets and infant caskets. Cruciform-shaped caskets and a never-very-popular solid-glass casket. Here are sturdy fiberboard "casket airtrays" for air transport, printed with the imploring words "Please handle with care and dignity" next to the not-so-dignified direction "Head End." Here is an original "seamless deposit" casket identical to that in which President Roosevelt (it doesn't say which one) is buried, and a notation indicating that Elvis was buried in a silver version of the same model. And here is the highlight: a custom casket built for three -- special-ordered by a woman whose child's death led her and her husband to agree upon a mutual suicide pact. The family wanted to be buried together. The casket is here on display because the parents changed their minds and never paid for the broad coffin's delivery.

Urns, as artifacts of cremation, are poorly represented, receiving a mere nod in one of the educational videotapes and not so much as a single example gracing the display area. This is perhaps because cremation has yet to find a majority clientele in the American funeral tradition -- and perhaps because the urn, relative to the extravagance of a plush-lined coffin, allows less room for the profit margin.

But, moving on, here are the means of transporting caskets from service site to grave. A 1941 Ford Seibert Aristocrat Landau. An 1888 Kimball Brougham "widow's coach" used in the movie Cyrano de Bergerac. A late 1800s funeral sleigh from Philadelphia and a 1916 R.E.O. Speedwagon hearse of wood construction -- one of the first motor-driven coaches. ("R.E.O.," by the way, are the initials of Ransom Eli Olds, founder of Oldsmobile.) Here is a 1937 Cadillac Meteor Ambulance next to an 1890 box hearse with a plaque reading, in part, "others welcomed the arrival of the motor-driven hearse, as it precluded any possibility of the horses running away with the deceased." There are dozens more, but among the hearse highlights, two stand out: a gorgeous 29-horsepower 1921 Rockfalls Hearse -- 19 feet long, 4,600 pounds heavy, and embellished with six kinds of wood carved into ornamental drapery on the side panels; and the only surviving example of the 1916 Packard Funeral Bus, designed to accommodate a driver, a casket and up to 20 mourners in a lavishly appointed approximation of paddywagon style. (The design innovation was abandoned after the weight of a funeral party traveling uphill in San Francisco tipped the bus back onto its rear end, spilling the dead upon the living and no doubt embarrassing the funeral director to death.)

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