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25 Years of Houston's National Museum of Funeral History's Bizarrely Fascinating Exhibits

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Any day above ground is a good one. That's the motto of the National Museum of Funeral History, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The museum is a little creepy, a little kooky, and endlessly fascinating. Museum President and COO Genevieve Keeney has gone through painstaking efforts to make it a place where people can learn about the history of funerals and death so that they can appreciate what they have while they're still living.

Lest we forget, other than taxes, there is only one other inevitable guarantee in life, so we might as well get comfortable with it.

"[People] have to come and experience it for [themselves]. So many people get taken aback by what they think we house, and then they come in and say, 'Wow, I didn’t know all this existed,'" says Keeney. "There is something for all ages in the museum. There is something you will have experienced in your lifetime that you can relate to, or something you saw in a movie that you know about."

The 30,500-square-foot facility was originally launched by Robert L. Waltrip, the founder of Service Corporation International. SCI is North America’s largest single provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services.

"It was in his adventures of building his corporation that he was noticing a trend of the tools of our trade. Unless somebody had a special interest in those items - granddad’s embalming machine - or someone just had an eclectic collection of funerary items they like to put together, a lot of the items were being discarded," says Keeney.

"What are you going to do with an old cooling board? Or those items being used on the dead? Unless there was an attachment, they were being thrown away. So Mr. Waltrip wanted to find a way to hold on to our history, but he also saw it as a way to put these items together to educate the people about our profession and how it's a vital part of life."

Thus, in 1992, the museum was born under Waltrip's care with a groundbreaking in February and a grand opening in October. The first exhibit was a collection of vintage hearses.

This exhibit of historical hearses shows the evolution of the automobile throughout time.EXPAND
This exhibit of historical hearses shows the evolution of the automobile throughout time.
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Funeral History

"We have a fascinating collection, everything from a horse-drawn hearse to motorized. You can see how they have changed over time. Car enthusiasts really enjoy it," says Keeney.

Over the years, as the museum began to collect more exhibits and gain a larger following, it was necessary to expand, which is when Keeney came into the picture. She was a volunteer for the museum at the time when she got word of the expansion plans and wanted to be involved.

"I interviewed with the board for being the project manager. I have a passion for educating people about one of life’s inevitable outcome," she says. Those are understandable words considering that she is licensed as a funeral director as well as embalmer.

Since then, she's been part of the ever-growing museum and helped assemble many of the exhibits that now have a forever home in Houston.

"When I put together an exhibit, I really want to make it educational and tie it in to something that can be historically traced. I want visitors to walk away with that a-ha moment and walk away learning something," she says.

From its humble beginnings, it has now grown to house 14 permanent exhibits as well as temporary exhibits from time to time.

Some of the most popular attractions include the Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes, Presidential Funerals and Thanks for the Memories exhibits.

The Thanks for the Memories exhibit provides an up-close and personal look at the grand farewells for some of the world's most iconic figures.EXPAND
The Thanks for the Memories exhibit provides an up-close and personal look at the grand farewells for some of the world's most iconic figures.
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Funeral History

Keeney mentions the papal exhibit teaches people what goes on behind the scenes and the customs and rituals that have existed for 2,000 years. It was originally inspired by Saint John Paul II, and it contains the actual Popemobile used by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United Kingdom in 1982, now officially a Saintmobile, since his canonization in 2014.

Presidential Funerals showcases something a little more patriotic. When a president dies, the nation morns, so Keeney and her team scoured the nation to find memorabilia to tell the story of each president.

"We showcase them individually based on whatever historical artifacts we can get our hands on surrounding that president’s death. Abraham Lincoln has the most real estate in that exhibit because he had the first state funeral," she says. "It touches everybody. Everybody remembers that president, or they learned about that president in history classes, so it’s relatable."

Thanks for the Memories showcases memorabilia about people involved in television, movies, music, sports and pop culture.

"Pretty much anyone who is anyone is in that exhibit," Keeney says. Everyone from Jim Henson, Whitney Houston, Lassie and the creator of Doritos has a spot reserved for them in this exhibit.

The Memories exhibit currently houses a replica of the batmobile, which was created by the late George Barris.

"The bat mobile has evolved over the years, but we’re paying a tribute to George Barris and what he has done for Hollywood. Recently, Adam West passed away, so we have a memorial book out for him. People can come and leave a little tribute or thought or memory of watching Adam West as Batman."

Two more not-to-miss exhibits are A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins From Ghana and Dia De Los Muertos.

The fantasy coffins are wooden coffins crafted by Ghanaian sculptor Kane Quaye in his homeland of Accra, Ghana, West Africa.

The Fantasy Coffins come from Ghana, and you've got to see them in person to understand how ornate they are.EXPAND
The Fantasy Coffins come from Ghana, and you've got to see them in person to understand how ornate they are.
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Funeral History

"It was through his talents that he worked the wood to look like art. It was meant to be symbolic of what [the deceased] did in their life or what they wanted to achieve in their afterlife. It represented what they were meant to be as a person."

Keeney also explains that they weren’t allowed in a church, so the funeral would be conducted in the courtyard area and then the coffin would be buried.

The Día de los Muertos exhibition is inspired by the Latin American holiday that celebrates the dead.

"The Latin American cultures believe the souls of their loved ones return on that day to have feasts and celebrations with their family. It’s also a day to remember the family that has passed on, and it rejoices that they have lived for another year and thus escaped death," says Keeney. "They embrace it very well and have big parades, so the exhibition helps people to better understand the customs and rituals that make that day so special for their culture."

Aside from its regular exhibits, the National Museum of Funeral History does take part in other events throughout the year.

It often participates in Civil War re-enactments in the greater Houston area. After all, it was during the Civil War that the United States started practicing the methods of disinfecting bodies and preserving them, which makes up a good chunk of what the funeral industry does. The museum also has a jam-packed schedule during October. It creates a Halloween house that's family-friendly for several weeks in the month, and it also gears up for the annual Día de los Muertos celebration.

Kenney and her team are always looking for new ways to expose people to different aspects of funeral culture, and she says she listens to people's requests to gauge what types of exhibits they want to see.

"A couple requests I have out there are they want to learn more about pet cemeteries and cremation. Cremation is now on the drawing board and slated for completion in 2018. That came from listening to the visitors," she says.

Beyond a couple of new additions over the coming year and celebrating the 25th anniversary, Keeney is excited to see what the future holds for the museum.

She says, "So much is changing in how we memorialize our loved ones. The technology is changing. The paradigm is shifting in how we memorialize and celebrate their life that was lived, and I think the museum is going to start showcasing some of that…moving into what the future may hold for the industry and the choices people may have when planning a funeral."

The National Museum of Funeral History is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at 415 Barren Springs Drive. For information, call 281-876-3063 or visit nmfh.org. Free to $10.

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