It’s easy to imagine the jokes they must hear at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas.
It’s a museum that people are, hee hee, dying to visit. That it contains exhibits that are, um, full of life. You get the picture.
Yet the museum takes seriously its mission to educate visitors about the rituals and customs surrounding life’s denouement. To that end, the museum is planning to launch a permanent exhibit on cremation in September, and the first crematory in America, built outside Washington in 1876, will figure prominently in it.
The facade and interior of the exhibit will replicate the LeMoyne Crematory that still stands in North Franklin Township. It will also feature reproductions of tools and a bier that were used in the crematory that were constructed by Clay Kilgore, the director of Washington County Historical Society, and Bryan Cunning, a Washington-based archaeologist.
Officials from the National Museum of Funeral History were at the LeMoyne House in Washington Wednesday to check on the progress of the items, and to take some of them back to Texas. Kilgore will travel to Houston later to install the bier.
“We reproduced pretty much exactly what it looked like,” Kilgore said. At the crematory, the bier was used to hold coffins or corpses before they were incinerated.
The National Museum of Funeral History opened in 1992, and in that time it has not had a permanent exhibit on cremation. But visitors to the museum kept asking about it, according to Genevieve Kenney, the president and CEO of the museum, and the decision was made to add it to exhibits on, among other things, the history of embalming, presidential funerals, coffins and caskets, and 19th century mourning.
So, in 2015, museum officials came and took measurements of the LeMoyne Crematory, with the intention of making it the linchpin of their cremation exhibit. Starting work in earnest on the exhibit then was apt, considering that in 2015 cremations surpassed burials for the first time in the United States.
“It has become a more accepted practice,” said Jason Engler, a cremation historian for the funeral history museum.
Other items from Washington that will be in the exhibit include a few samples of cremated remains that the founder of the LeMoyne Crematory, Francis Julius LeMoyne, sent to doctors and other individuals to illustrate the cremation process. LeMoyne’s crematory was not only the first in the United States, but one of the first in the Western world – the first cremation did not happen in Britain until almost a decade after LeMoyne’s facility began operating.
Cremation has been more common in Europe than in the United States, Engler pointed out, largely due to religious convictions and land-use concerns. Advocates such as LeMoyne argued cremation would make the living safer, because it would prevent decomposing bodies in cemeteries from polluting water supplies. Still, many Americans were squeamish about the practice, and the LeMoyne Crematory ended up closing in 1900. The structure is now on the National Register of Historic Places.