Undertakers drab? Time to lay that image to rest DATELINE: HOUSTON

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

November 20, 1992|By J. Michael Kennedy | J. Michael Kennedy,Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON -- Think, dear friends, of death.

Ponder, for a moment, the stereotype of the undertaker: a dark-suited, pallid man with hands clasped, offering condolences to the bereaved while at the same time trying to sell them a casket they can't afford.

Not fair, say aggrieved members of the funeral profession. Not fair at all. Funeral directors, they contend, are business people who also perform a valuable public service in trying circumstances.

The flip side of the coffin, as it were, comes from Robert Waltrip, chairman of Service Corp. International, who last month opened the 20,000-square-foot American Funeral Home Museum, a tribute to those who lay others to rest.

The rather bland name of Mr. Waltrip's company belies the fact that it is the funeral giant of the world, operating 670 funeral homes and 139 cemeteries throughout the United States and Canada.

Mr. Waltrip, who comes from a family of funeral home owners and has long dreamed of a funeral home museum, put up $1 million of his company's money to get the project started.

A funeral home museum may seem like something of a reach, but the fact is, there's a museum out there for almost everything.

Consider that there is a nut (as in walnut, peanut) museum in Connecticut and a national taxidermy hall of fame in Pennsylvania, a Tupperware museum in Florida and a whiskey history museum in Kentucky.

The funeral home museum, which is adjacent to an apartment complex in the outer reaches of northern Houston, is housed in a new, nondescript brick building that also contains a mortuary college and continuing-education facility for morticians.

The primary color inside the museum is, as might be expected, black. The huge room is filled with gleaming antique hearses -- some motorized, others from the horse-drawn era, but almost all of them a gleaming ebony.

The one with the best story is the 1916 Packard funeral bus, built to carry coffin, flowers, pallbearers and mourners, rather than stringing them out in a line of traffic. The one on display was being used in San Francisco when, because of too much weight in the rear, its front end tipped up in the air while it was climbing a steep hill. The casket tipped over, as did the flowers, and the pallbearers tumbled into the mourners.

The bus was immediately retired from the funeral business and became the home for a California ranch hand for 40 years before being retrieved, restored and eventually donated to the museum.

The people associated with the museum are definitely upbeat about this celebration of the funeral business.

"People are fearful about things they are not educated about," said Julie Nelson, the museum coordinator. "This is an opportunity to educate and enlighten people about something that is viewed as depressing and having a dark side."

Perhaps so. But a walk through the museum is hardly a cheery romp.

First comes the film about the funeral business, which explains that early undertakers often did the work as a sideline to a cabinetmaking or livery business.

Next to that are newspaper clippings and displays about the famous who have died, from John F. Kennedy to Elvis Presley to Will Rogers to Helena Rubenstein.

Then there is the re-creation of a 1920s embalming room, complete with a black leather cooling board and a number of chrome embalming machines. Off to the side are the wicker baskets used to take the deceased from their homes to the funeral parlor.

Finally, there are caskets from the past, including cast-iron models from the mid-18th century with windows that permitted the living to see the dead. It was the casket of choice during the Civil War.

Chris Layton, who also works at the museum, said funeral home directors from around the country combed their attics and old files looking for items to contribute to the museum.

He said there was a warehouse full of things not on display and that the donations were so numerous because funeral directors tend to be pack rats.

"Funeral directors keep things forever," he said.

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