The National Museum of Funeral History is such an unexpected, unusual and cool museum that it deserved its own post. Most of the parents I know refrain from mentioning death or dying to kids. It’s an uncomfortable subject and a difficult concept for kids to grasp. So why visit this museum with your kids? Because it is a really interesting way to learn about American history and international cultures.
When you first walk into the museum, you’re greeted by a Presidential hearse. It was the exact one used for President Gerald Ford and President Ronald Reagan during the California segments of their funerals. In fact, there are many beautiful (yes, beautiful) and ornate hearses on display. To my son, a hearse is just a really big car, so he was thrilled. The exhibit on Presidential funerals continues on to highlight President Abraham Lincoln’s state funeral. There’s a model of the train that carried his body for 20 days through 7 states!
There’s also a famous people’s section, which includes Elvis, Jackie O., Michael Jackson and, surprisingly, Snow White! It took me a minute to remember the deathbed scene from the movie, where Snow White lay in her glass and metal coffin. The coffin on display was made in the 1940s, a few years after the film debuted. A tad bizarre but at least something kids will recognize. Speaking of coffins, there are some pretty elaborate ones on view, including a money coffin!
Other exhibits include a replica of the first crematory in the U.S. We skipped this one as I was at a complete loss for how to explain cremation to my son. You can also see a model casket factory and a recreation of a 19th century wake, complete with period furniture and dress. There is an extensive exhibit on popes, the papacy and sainthood, complete with a real Popemobile.
My favorite part of the museum were the international exhibits. The exhibit on Egyptian embalming completely surprised and was fascinating. I showed my son the hieroglyphs and attempted an explanation of mummies, Egyptian coffins and the Pyramids. Fortunately, we had been reading Those Magnificent Sheep in Their Flying Machine. The book has an illustration of mummies walking out of the pyramids to have a picnic. (It’s a great kids book!)
The international section also covered a Japanese ceremonial hearse, Princess Grace’s hearse and Tibetan burial customs. The Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos exhibit showed how a family might decorate an altar to honor the dead. The designer coffins from Ghana were wonderful and a huge hit with my son. Is that weird? Coffins being cool? Anyway, the design reflected the status and profession of the deceased. Not sure who the KLM airplane coffin was intended for though.
I never would have thought a funeral museum could be such a great way for kids to understand history and culture. I think the museum is great for school-aged kids and up. Unless your kiddo is like mine and loves all cars, hearse or not.
For more off the beaten path museums for kids, check out my previous post.
PS My son has continued to ask to go back to the museum with the mummies! I think we’ll be stopping by the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the HMNS soon!