The Ultimate Sideshow

The timeless subject of death finds a curious resting place - the city's Dime Museum.

February 10, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome. - Isaac Asimov, science-fiction writer

Richard Hoff can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about embalming. Whether it's the workings of embalming pumps (electric nowadays, not manual), the evolution of materials (arsenic salts through about 1855, formaldehyde thereafter), or the disposition of blood after embalming ("it can go straight down the sewer," Hoff says enthusiastically), the Pikesville jeweler can dissect his favorite topic with the erudition of a scholar and all the passion of a sports nut on a barstool.

"No, I don't think [this interest] is morbid or strange," says Hoff, 44, pausing in the midst of a disquisition on the intricacies of bodily decay. "Haven't people always been interested in death?"

If Hoff's peculiar fascination is not to everyone's taste, it has at least found a suitable home for the next few weeks. His private collection of mortuary artifacts - from embalming shunts to Victorian-era "animal-claw jewelry" - are part of Good Mourning America, a new exhibit at the American Dime Museum that casts an eye on the evolving business of death and grieving in America, particularly around the turn of the last century.

"Attitudes toward death change like fashions," says Dick Horne, the cura- tor/impresario of the Maryland Avenue museum. "That was really a critical period in the history of a subject people tend to avoid. It has been fascinating to pull this all together."

Human beings have always done what they could to come to terms with life's final passage.

The ancient Egyptians perfected mummification, a drying-out process that delays decomposition, sometimes for centuries. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln hastened the advent of arterial embalming so the bodies of officers killed in battle could be presented more palatably back home. Over the years, everything from stuffed animal heads to haunted houses, urban legends and shock films have tried to turn life's greatest mystery into trophies, fetishes and sick humor.

All of which brings us to Horne, founding director of the five-year-old Dime Museum. Its mission, he says, is to shine a light on the rough-and-tumble preoccupations of a 19th-century America in which "dime museums" - precursors to traveling sideshows - displayed anything from genuine Lewis and Clark canoe paddles to bearded ladies and mummified pets.

"Whatever got folks in the door," says an admiring Horne, whose permanent displays include a mounted jackalope head ("half-jackrabbit, half antelope, and native to the American Southwest"), a "downy ocean hunne" (a feather-covered fish) and a bona fide mummified cat.

But how can a curator who says, proudly, "I'm interested in anything obscure and in bad taste," deal effectively with the Grim Reaper? Horne is more likely to ask how he could not. He recalls a funeral he attended years ago. As the deceased lay in state - a "practice I've always considered barbaric," he says - Horne saw several of his friends approach the casket, reach in and try to open the body's eyes.

"It really is `step right up!'" says Horne, a man given to deadpan expressions and conveying mirth with his eyes. "You know, `Here he is in his coffin; take a peek, but don't look too long!'

"What are funerals but performance pieces staged by the people left behind?"

Death, says Horne, "is like a lot of things we display: They're taboo - things that normally aren't talked about, for one reason or another. A good show titillates. It brings what is forbidden out into the open. You don't want to look at it, but you can't help yourself.

"People can't get enough of that, can they?"

If death as carnival act is no more macabre than, say, open caskets or burial at sea, Horne's emporium is as good a place as any for a gander at one important period in the evolution of American death and grieving: the waning days of the Victorian era, roughly between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s.

"Up till that time, people used their own homes to display the deceased," Horne says. "Death was much more a part of day-to-day living. When funeral homes came along around the turn of the century, it changed everything. That's what we're trying to capture."

In an off-hours tour of the exhibit, Hoff, dressed in funereal black, and Horne showed how Americans had a more personal relationship with their own mortality.

An elaborate sable mourning dress adorns a mannequin. "You'd wear these for 18 months," says Hoff, mentioning what Mary Todd Lincoln did in the wake of her husband's assassination. Many grievers bought "mourning clocks" - black timepieces that needed no mechanical workings because they were permanently set at the deceased's time of death. Horne shows off the exhibit's most disquieting feature, a collection of lifelike black-and-white photographs of infants.

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