Family Time at the Funeral Museum

Featured Travel
A well-preserved Nineteenth Century hearse carriage greets visitors at the entrance of the small-but-informative El Paso Funeral Museum. All images: Rick Tate

While my family was out on a weekend drive, we decided to drop into the local funeral home to see what’s happening.

Actually, we stopped by a custom hearse car show filled with customized vehicles and retro vendors. This gave us a chance to take a peek at the recently-opened El Paso Funeral Museum.

The museum occupies a small space on the side of the newest location of a local funeral home, Perches, with the mission to “enlighten and educate our community on one of man’s oldest cultures, professions, and rituals and to celebrate the traditions of the funeral service industry.”

It doesn’t take long to visit, but there are quite a bit of informative displays packed into that small space, such as dioramas of funeral rituals, including artifacts from various eras and regions of the world, and a few curiosities. There was also a “Gone Too Soon” memorial wall with images of individuals whose artistic or humanitarian contributions to the world are still with us. Despite what I first expected, there wasn’t anything eerie or overtly morbid about it.

Rituals and remembrances for our “dearly departed” is a part of every culture around the world, from Latin American Day of the Dead altars to the mummification process of ancient Egypt.

Even in the limited space, everyone in our family found something we were drawn to.

My husband, a history and geography teacher, liked the Egyptian display with full-size sarcophagus, candles, some information on the process of mummification, and the royal “Pharaoh’s Hound” statues.

My youngest liked the colorful Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) set up with examples of an altar, paper flowers, calaveras (sugar skulls), and folk art. My kids have grown up around this tradition in the area, but thanks to movies like Coco and The Book of Life, she has become even more fascinated by this holiday.

My 17-year-old, who has been thinking about working in forensics, was curious about the development of 18th century “modern embalming” methods and how they have evolved into what is used today. The museum also showed how many people now have more “green” options for their remains, like biodegradable urns. There was even an example of how people can incorporate their ashes into an attractive bonsai tree.

Me? I like anything that reminds me of the fall and the “spookier” side of things, and I loved the old 1850s Victorian era hearse carriage that reminded me of the buggy outside Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction.

The museum opened appropriately on Dia de Los Muertos of last year, and is planning a celebration for its first anniversary to once again coincide with this holiday.

As finite as a funeral may seem, the still young museum has created a series of events encouraging people to return for additional visits. While a Father’s Day car show is what first attracted our attention, the museum is planning at least one special event every month. Their next event is hosting the Borderland Frida’s annual “Homenaje A Frida Kahlo,” for the 112th birthday of the late Mexican artist. There will be folklorico performances, art workshops, a celebratory altar, and a Frida look-alike contest among the activities.

Other upcoming events include a summer “Before I Die” Festival, history and education events, and movie screenings. My teenager wants to come back in October for their “Victorian Mourning Tea Party.” If I had known about the museum earlier, I would have loved to have attended their Edgar Allen Poe event celebrating poets and artists “that have moved our world.”

The process of dealing with peoples’ remains has come a long way over the years, from the use of modern embalming methods to some new “green” approaches.

We’re definitely going to keep track of what they have going, as much of their events are very arts, literature, and creativity-centered.

People always talk about divides in cultures and beliefs, but all of us realized while we were at the museum that there is one thing everyone has in common: we are mortal. No matter our politics, our religious beliefs, our culture, or our lifestyle, facing the loss of someone we know, perhaps someone we love, is a reality no one escapes.

This museum visit wasn’t just about “death” at all. It was about how those of us still living deal with it, about celebrating and remembering the lives that have run their course, and how preparing to say “goodbye” can bring people together.

The museum hosted a custom hearse car show the weekend we visited, and there were some pretty clever setups.

Admission to El Paso Funeral Museum is free, but donations are welcome and a gift shop is available with some items bearing their colorful logo, as well as specialty gifts. It is located just off I-10 on the northwest side of the city, so those traveling through will find it easy to access for a quick visit.

While I had initially worried visiting this museum would give my young daughters a heavy sense of their own mortality, it instead left of all with a sense of sharing something with every single person on the planet, as well as the notion all our lives are precious, valuable, and worthy of celebration.

You know, for a museum dedicated to funerals, that was quite an upbeat message.

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