Recent research by Safe Hands shows that the taboo around discussing death may be lifting, with 30% of us prepared to think more about our own death and funeral planning. What better way to do this than with a trip to a museum? With many established museums around the world specialising in the history of death ceremonies, there’s every opportunity to broaden your horizons, learn from other cultures and explore ideas for your own funeral through these exceptional places. Here are our top picks:
Vienna Funeral Museum
Reputedly the first of its kind, this funeral museum celebrates the Viennese fascination with elaborate funerals and the ‘cult of the dead’, giving insight into the ceremonies of some of its most famous inhabitants such as the assassinated Archduke Frans Ferdinand and Mozart. Expect to see coffins with trapdoors, alarm bells to prevent you being buried alive and death masks.
USA’s National Museum of Funeral History
Based in Houston, Texas, visitors can view a typically American take on death and ceremonies in this large museum, from the jazz themed funerals of New Orleans to the Mexican traditions of the Dia De Los Muertos. Amongst its 14 permanent exhibitions you will also learn about the funerals of presidents, popes and film stars. More quirky artefacts include Ghanaian ‘fantasy’ coffins, brightly decorated to represent animals or objects associated with the departed, including a coffin shaped like a Mercedes Benz.
Coffin Works, Birmingham
Visit the old Jewellery Quarter business, Newman Brothers, to discover how some of the world’s finest coffins have been made, including those for Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. Explore parts of the old factory that specialised in making intricate coffin furniture and plaques for the Victorian’s obsession with elaborate funerals.
The Dutch Funeral Museum, Amsterdam
Otherwise known as Museum Tot Zover, or ‘there you have it’ in English. Located in an extended 19th Century grave digger’s house, it is also next to Amsterdam’s largest monumental cemetery. You can expect to explore the traditions of Dutch funerals as well as more contemporary and philosophical approaches to death. Discover how the Victorian’s used loved ones hair in artwork and view a large collection of urns, coffins and other funerary items.
Mummification Museum, Egypt
Dedicated to the ancient Egyptian art of mummification, this small museum in Luxor will tell you all you need to know about embalming and the mummification process, with the various tools they used on display. In their quest for eternal life, this process was crucial in preserving their body from decay. A mummy of a 21st dynasty high priest sits alongside mummies of crocodiles, fish, a baboon and a cat.
British Museum London – Egyptian Death Rituals and the Afterlife
If you’re looking for something closer to home, check out the British Museum’s collection of Egyptian Death Rituals and the Afterlife. In fact, the vast majority of artefacts in another exhibition – the Egyptian Life and Death collection – were found preserved within tombs, so this display can also offer insights into a culture that had such a strong connection between how they lived and their planning for the afterlife.
Valhalla, Jorvik Viking Centre
Using excavated findings, particularly those found in York, this touring exhibition tells the tale of how the Vikings commemorated and celebrated their dead including details of their famous long boat ceremonies, beautifully ornate carved headstones and belief in Viking gods and Norse myths.
Rome and Paris Catacombs Tours
Although not strictly funeral museums, these tours of metropolitan underworlds can still provide insights into the history of how we have stored our dead. In Rome, these underground burial chambers were used from the 2nd to the 5th century by Jewish, pagan and early Christian Roman citizens. The Parisian version was created in the late 18th century when less than hygienic practices in the city’s cemeteries forced the authorities to move millions of people’s remains to former quarries. A clear reminder that whatever we plan for our own death, future generations will also have a role to play.