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Unique American Museum Exhibits and Interprets Funeral Customs

By Jon Austin, Director

The Illinois Funeral Directors Association and Illinois Funeral Service Foundation opened the new Museum of Funeral Customs in April 2001, following six years of planning. The Museum is located near Oak Ridge Cemetery and the Abraham Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. Over 18,500 visitors have toured the facility, which is open six days each week. The Museum is closed on Mondays and on public holidays.

The Association began to collect objects in 1966 when it established the Illinois Funeral Service Foundation, an educational division of IFDA. The collection was exhibited in temporary locations, and objects loaned by private collectors supplemented the displays. In 1980, the Association hosted a temporary exhibit of objects at the Illinois State Fair in honor of the organization's centennial anniversary. The popularity of that exhibit led the Association to create a traveling exhibit, which became equally popular. By 1995, the Association's Board of Directors decided that it should create a permanent museum and exhibition to preserve the history of the profession and to offer the public an awareness of traditional funeral service. While the Board had developed a vision for the new museum, it lacked the expertise to complete the task and reflect their own sense of professionalism. After seeking the advice of museum consultants who laid the groundwork for the facility, the Association hired both an experienced museum director and a curator of collections. Both individuals have advanced degrees in American history and museum studies, and they began immediately to work in partnership with the Association members and the Board of Directors to create the unique facility.

The Museum's permanent collection is composed of American objects, dating from 1840 to the present. That date was selected because it coincides with the introduction of arterial embalming to America from France. While a few of the objects collected in 1966 remain in the collection, their condition had suffered while in storage or while traveling. After organizing the remnants of the original collection and the creation of a computerized database, the staff set out to expand the collection in 2000 by soliciting donations from members of the Association as well as seeking donations from funeral directors and manufacturers across the United States. The permanent collection continues to grow, and the staff maintains a list of objects that it would like to acquire. In addition to the three-dimensional collection, the staff is developing a research library that will encourage serious study of the subjects of death, grief, and the funeral profession. The printed collection is global in scope and contains material in most major languages. The library includes trade periodicals, technical leaflets, post-mortem photographs, product sales literature, supply catalogs, textbooks, and business records. The oldest item in the library dates to the middle of the 16th century and comes from the present Czech Republic. While the Museum is open six days each week, access to the library is by appointment. In addition to the two full-time employees, the Museum employs six volunteers who assist with caring for the collection, developing exhibits, presenting tours, and responding to questions from the public.

Highly professional, educational exhibits introduce visitors to the art and science of embalming, the rise and development of the funeral profession, the funeral rite, interment, coffin and casket styles, and the rituals of mourning. Visitors may examine a re-created preparation room from the 1920s, a home funeral from 1870, a reproduction of Abraham Lincoln's coffin, horse-drawn hearses, instruments and equipment, mortuary furnishings, burial clothing, mourning jewelry, and photographs. The self-guided exhibits appeal to both the general public and to funeral professionals. The staff conducts guided tours for adult and student groups by reservation. Six informational leaflets have been written in response to visitor questions for more information. These are distributed in the exhibit area.

In addition to the permanent gallery, the Museum hosts temporary exhibits that change in June and December each year. Past themes have examined the graves of the Presidents of the United States, body snatching, ladies' mourning clothing in 19th century America, symbols that are found on American grave markers, African-American funeral and mourning customs, and a look at the above-ground mausoleums found in New Orleans' historic cemeteries. Future exhibit themes include mourning jewelry, funeral floral arrangements, and a look at military funerals and protocol.

In keeping with its educational mission, The Museum also hosts education programs, including an annual reading of poetry related to death and grief as well as lectures on topics related to the history of funeral service and living history presentations. The staff also supports the county historical society's annual tour through Oak Ridge Cemetery, which is the largest cemetery in Illinois and the second most-visited cemetery in the nation. The Museum staff also conducts active research into the history of American funeral service, resulting in periodic publications distributed by the Museum, articles submitted to both popular and funeral trade presses, and responses to public inquiry. The Museum is also supported by a small friends' group and dedicated volunteers.

The Illinois Funeral Directors Association through the Illinois Funeral Service Foundation has created a truly unique and seminal facility that benefits the general public, funeral service professionals, and scholars.

Those interested in learning more about or visiting the Museum may contact the staff via e-mail at or by visiting the website at The Museum is located at 1440 Monument Avenue, Springfield, Illinois 62702. The staff may also be reached at 217/544-3480.

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