If we pay attention to the signs, popular culture will prepare us for just about any sort of discussion. HBO's Six Feet Under got us talking about death and dying and Game of Thrones certainly followed through with fiery notions about how to best usher our dearly departed into the afterlife. Dragon births aside, no GoT fan will ever forget Edmure Tully's feeble attempt to shoot a flaming arrow into his father's funeral barge; it took the hardened Blackfish to give Hoster Tully a proper send-off.
And so "The History of Cremation," the new permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History, rightly begins with cremation's ancient roots: how Viking warriors were placed on a ship that was set on fire as it went out to sea and how ancient cultures as far back as the Bronze Age built funeral pyres on scaffolding or held open air cremations.
From there the exhibit takes a decidedly American turn, due in no small part to the lifelong collection of Jason Engler, a funeral director with an eye for the obscure, archaic and macabre. We'll see about 90 percent of Engler's cremation artifacts in this exhibit, including books, postcards and more than 100 urns, some dating back to the 1890s. There's even a photograph of a hearse containing the body of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the famous aviator's toddler son who was abducted, murdered and eventually cremated.
When Engler joined the Cremation Association of North America as its historian, it soon became apparent that his collection needed a wider audience and NMFH was the perfect venue. Three years later, and not without some creative rearranging to carve out space, "The History of Cremation" has become a fully realized exhibit, even outfitted with a replica of America's first crematory built by Dr. Francis LeMoyne in 1876.
Genevieve Keeney, the museum's president, says they toured that crematorium in Washington, Pennsylvania and had it replicated here in Houston. "Now visitors are greeted by the façade or outside of the first crematorium in North America and that's where they will begin their immersed journey," says Keeney. "Even to this day I walk into the exhibition, now hundreds of times as it’s been constructed, and I still really get a feeling of immersion. 'Wow.' I feel like I’ve been transported to Washington, Pennsylvania."
Visitors will learn about columbariums, niche walls, the architecture used in building crematories and the science of cremation. "What goes on inside the cremator itself, nothing gory or graphic," says Keeney. "Highlighting the processing of the human cremated remains, what happens, what comes out of the cremator. How are they processed, what’s our chain of custody, how do we maintain the identification of the process."
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Keeney points out that everybody makes plans for a birth, graduation or wedding, but not all of us outline our wishes for what happens after death. The exhibit concludes with different options for the memorialization of human cremated remains, including becoming part of a piece of art, made into a diamond, buried in a vault, spread across the ocean or even placed in a bio urn to grow a tree. They also have a unique selection of modern day urns that show the wide variety of choices available.
"It speaks to who that person is, what their favorite color was," says Keeney, adding that urns can include images within the urn, such as a butterfly, dove or sports logo.
"Unfortunately death is inevitable and is part of life," says Keeney, who hopes that the exhibit will help people make plans now, not just about whether to choose cremation but also about what to do with those human cremated remains. Otherwise there's a risk that a few generations will pass and nobody will still be alive to cherish and value those remains.
"The History of Cremation" is a new permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, 415 Barren Springs Drive, 281-876-3063, nmfh.org, free to $10.