Behind the scenes

The Life Stories of the National Museum Of Funeral History's Coolest Artifacts

The museum's collections are not what you'd expect.

By Chris Gray Published in the Fall issue of Houstonia Magazine

A museum devoted to the arts and sciences behind caring for the dead can be a tough sell, admits National Museum of Funeral History President and COO Genevieve Keeney. That said, “We’re not showcasing death in the way I think people expect,” she says. Located a few minutes from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the museum’s 30,000-plus square feet of space houses 15 permanent exhibitions, including “Presidential Funerals” and the increasingly popular “History of Cremation.” Once people do visit, “Nine times out of 10 the reaction is, ‘Wow! That’s not what I expected,’” relates Keeney, who has been at NMFH for 13 years. “The expectation and the actual experience are two opposite extremes.”

Horse-drawn hearse

1. Oldest: Horse-drawn hearse

Smaller in stature than its modern counterparts, this particular vehicle was made in 1832 for the town of Cambridgeport, Vt., and last used in 1926. It boasts the original feather plumes, which Keeney says “were very symbolic to the socioeconomic status of the person inside.” Plumes on newer hearses are carved in wood.

Papal sash

2. Most Valuable: Papal sash

This gold-trimmed, white taffeta sash—worn by Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 until his 2005 death and was canonized in 2014—features the late pontiff’s coat of arms and was among the principal accoutrements for “the people’s Pope.” Says Keeney, “There’s no amount of money that can ever, ever be worth what that sash represents.”

Fantasy Coffin

3. Most Unique: Fantasy coffins

Created by the late Ghanaian artist Kane Quaye, these fancifully carved coffins in the museum’s “A Life Well Lived” exhibit offer an array of whimsical designs: leopard, crab, shallot, Mercedes-Benz, and KLM airliner, among others. The NMFH’s Quaye collection is the largest outside Africa. “The kids enjoy those the most,” says Keeney, “just because people would look at them and be like, ‘Is that really a coffin, or is that a piece of art?’ They’re actually both.”

Triple casket

4Most Poignant: Triple casket

The tale of the so-called triple casket is a tearjerker of the highest order: a couple lost their daughter to disease and cooked up a murder-suicide pact so that all three of them could be buried together. Thankfully the parents reconsidered, but not before ordering this deluxe gold casket with a plush ivory interior. The exhibit “helps people understand the power of grief and the power of losing somebody that you love,” says Keeney. “But it also tells the story that, in time, grief does lessen if you give it the opportunity.”

National Museum Of Funeral History. 415 Barren Springs Dr. 281-876-3063.

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