Saturday, July 26, 2014

Traveling West Virginia: The Mortuary Museum, Continued

I suppose technically I should not title these two posts as "Traveling West Virginia" since the Peoples Mortuary Museum is in Marietta, Ohio, but since it's just across the river, and since Bill Peoples, owner of the museum, is a cousin of Don Knotts (the famous Barney Fife of Andy Griffith fame), I'll let it stand.

The museum had more than just hearses. Mr. Peoples has been collecting for years and his museum reflected his good eye:

First is this pretty wood bed, actually called a funeral board. It can be folded up neatly into a suitcase shape, and that was how it was stored because it was re-used as needed. The pretty netting was a necessity in warm weather when doors and windows might be open or there were many people coming in and out, letting in insects.


This looks like a wicker coffin, doesn't it? It's actually a basket used for the wake or visitation period of someone whose remains were not fit for viewing. The basket would be closed and placed on the funeral board. At the time of the funeral the body would be removed from the basket to the actual casket. These baskets were also stored and re-used. And this, I learned, is the origin of a term we sometimes use when someone is in really bad shape: we might refer to them as a "basket case."

The harness in the above photo was donated by a man from Waverly, WV, who found it hanging in his barn, where it had been for many years. It was originally harness used for a horse drawn hearse. Mr. Peoples sent the old, dirty leather to the Amish to be restored. They cleaned it very well, but the leather is too dried out to actually be used again.

 Mr. Peoples also has an early embalming table on display. He is holding an early electric pump for embalming fluid. On the shelf above is a brass cylinder that was an experimental model using air pressure.

At the opposite end of the embalming table is a large, early hair dryer. Really. And here we thought those were an invention of the 60's! 


Babies sometimes had to be placed in baskets as well. The ribbons on the basket would be pink or blue, depending on the child's gender. These were also stored away, and it is sad to think how often they might have been used in the days when disease took so many children.


 It was customary until the 1920's or later for the deceased to be laid out in private homes rather than in funeral parlors. In the photos below you can see an elaborate setup that would be brought into the home by the funeral director, and set up in the parlor. Even the heavy drapes were brought in and placed across picture windows to block out the light and heat. Large fans were brought in during hot weather. At the time of the funeral the body would be placed in its casket, and the trappings would all be stored away for the next use. Mr. Peoples noted that young people did not like going into the parlor because everyone connected that room of the house with death, and so when the use of funeral homes became the norm the term used for the room became the "living" room, and funeral parlor became another term for the funeral home.



In the photo above left you can see a wood box. That was a casket made to hold the body of someone who had died from something that was thought to be infectious. A glass-paned door allowed people to look in at the deceased, and could be opened if needed. Another small door in the center of the lid could also be opened so flowers and other items could be placed in the coffin. Obviously, the size of this one indicates it was for a child.


I asked Mr. Peoples about the story I had heard about houses, particularly in the south, that had two front doors. I was told that one of those doors was for the living, and one for bringing the dead out of the home in the coffin. That door would open directly into the parlor, making transport of the large box easier. Mr People's said that he had not heard of the two doors before, but he did know that some large Victorian houses were built with one larger window on the side of the parlor to be used for taking the coffin out of the house.

Death is not a happy topic, but this museum was fascinating for its look at changing customs. Touring the museum gave me a new perspective on the funeral industry and I learned some interesting history and lore, and I was not one bit depressed when we left. As with anything, the more we know, the better equipped we are to understand.

And I'll think hard before I refer to anyone as a basket case again!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

1 comment:

annie said...

These were great posts, you don't really think about how it used to be most of the time. Sitting up with the dead, I use to hear, long before Ray Stevens and his song. Do you know if the 2 door was used in coal camp houses? Not a duplex 2 family house, just 2 doors. My uncle had one with 2 doors in a camp house, only about 4 or 5 small rooms in the place. 2 tiny bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room, and a teeny little bathroom made from the old back porch, every house up there had 2 front doors, they were the same size doors. Very interesting reading!

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