The Rite Stuff

A video at the beginning of the tour says, "We're all beings that will someday expire." Thus placed in the proper frame of mind, you're ready to explore the National Museum of Funeral History, a bizarre but compelling collection of artifacts about shuffling off this mortal coil.

"A lot of people don't know what to expect; they either make a big joke of it or are scared. But once they're inside, they see how cool it is. They know [death's] part of our culture," says Keven Boetticher, the museum's Gen X manager. "Some people expect to see dead bodies all over the place. But it's not that [somber]. We have two or three senior-citizen groups a week that come out, and they joke about it with each other." The black comedy spills over into the gift shop, which sells golf balls emblazoned with the image of an old-time hearse and beer coozies bearing the inscription "Every day above ground is a good one." Boetticher says he's fresh out of the golf clubs with the coffins on the putting ends, but more are expected soon.

Once you get past the initial creepiness of sharing space with all those hearses and coffins -- including children's caskets with see-through windows, often built by fathers as a form of grief therapy -- you'll find a fascinating history about how we Americans have confronted death. Some funereal facts: Services were held in the family home until the advent of the modern mortuary in the 1920s; a 19th-century widow was expected to wear black for two years after her husband's death; a girl who'd lost a parent could expect to have all of her regular toys exchanged for a contemplative-looking "mourning doll"; it was perfectly acceptable to hang a photo of your deceased Uncle Zed in the living room, but this snapshot would be taken after Zed was dead, baby.

The 20,000-square-foot memorabilia mausoleum even owns a triple casket custom-made for a distraught Midwestern couple who planned a murder/suicide following the death of their child. They eventually overcame their grief, and the wife even asked for a refund 20 years later; presumably, that check's still in the mail. Speaking of unusual coffins, the museum has the most complete collection of Ghanaian "fantasy designer" coffins in the U.S. These colorful folk-art boxes are designed to reflect the status of the deceased. A Ghanaian cattleman might be laid to rest in a coffin shaped like a black-and-white bull; a fisherman might spend eternity inside a large purple lobster complete with whiskers and claws.

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Car buffs will gape at the museum's collection of immaculate hearses, including a 1924 Model TT Hoover and a 1929 Studebaker Superior, and the only remaining 1916 Packard funeral bus. This black-curtained vehicle had room for 20 mourners, pallbearers and the deceased, but it was quickly taken out of circulation following a disaster at a San Francisco service; scaling a tough hill, the bus sent mourners tumbling over pallbearers and spat out the casket, which did the same with its body.

There are special exhibits -- Abraham Lincoln's cross-country funeral trek; "Funerals of the Famous" (JFK, Nixon, Eva Gabor) -- and a short history of embalming, which includes a body table and fluid containers (they bear an unsettling resemblance to that stainless-steel coffee pot in your office). "This is a very nice display," says Brock Baker, an ebony-suited embalmer from Kansas and a dead ringer for actor Martin Landau. "This is like coming home for me. I used to watch my dad embalm bodies when I was little."

Frank Sinatra -- now a candidate for an NMFH exhibit of his own -- once opined, "You gotta love livin', because dyin's a pain in the ass." True, but at least this brush with the inevitable doesn't require a handkerchief or a barf bag.

-- Bob Ruggiero

The National Museum of Funeral History: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; noon to 4 p.m. weekends. 415 Barren Springs, (281) 876-3063; $5; $3 for kids under 12 and seniors.

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