Saturday, July 24, 2010

Museum of Mourning Art

While there are a few "Death" museums in the U.S., the one in Drexel Hill's Arlington Cemetery (western Philadelphia suburb) is one of the few that does not cater to sensationalism and grislyness. Officially named "Museum of Mourning Art," this small museum presents a well-executed (pun intended) collection of funereal artifacts mainly from the Victorian Era (mid to late 1800s). This was the period in which funerary art was most popular and widespread in Western cultures. All artforms were affected, from sculpture, painting, and clothing to cemetery architecture, landscaping, and design. Garden cemeteries came into being with their extravagent monumentation and people wore jewely made from hair of the deceased. In other words, we were much more at ease with death than we are now (possibly because it was so much more prevalent and people just had to get used to it!).

At this point, I have no idea how in 2005 I stumbled upon the Museum of Mourning Art--word of mouth, probably. Unless you travel in these circles, how would you know? That's why you need me to dig these things up for you! The museum is located in the town of Drexel Hill, PA., in Arlington Cemetery. I've placed a link to their website at the end of this blog.

The cemetery itself is a rather pleasant suburban one, with no ornamentation or statuary to speak of. The only thing unusual about it is the structure within the grounds that houses the funeral home, offices, and museum--its a replica of Mount Vernon - George Washington's Virginia home. It seems the owners are GW fans! They even have a lock of his hair under glass in the museum!

The museum is devoted to the representation of grief in American and European culture. The docent is happy to show you around, or you can wander among the arifacts yourself (but please call first to make an appointment: 610-259-5800). Earlier I suggested that the proprietors seem to have avoided the shocking and sensational items other death museums revel in, but if you've never seen a life-sized horse-drawn funeral hearse or a cemetery gun, these bona fide historical artifacts can be quite shocking! The museum displays such commonplace Victorian items as original full-color lithographic funeral invitations, an instruction book on how to get into heaven, and the largest collection of funerary jewely I've ever seen! In fact, the first time I went there, the docent had the book for sale that you see here, "Mourning Arts Jewelry" (DeLorme, 2004 Schiffer Art Books). Have a look for a slice of life you may not have known existed here in the U.S. 150 years ago!

Now, I mentioned a "cemetery gun," a device with which you may be unfamiliar. Its purpose was to deter (and destroy) grave robbers! At nightfall when the average law-abiding citizen was not expected to venture onto the grounds, the gun was rigged to a trip wire at the cemetery entrance. A nefarious intruder would theoretically trip the wire by walking into the cemetery, and be shot by the gun. This isn't necessarily Burke and Hare Victorian folklore (notorious Scottish graverobbers/murderers) -- we really did have our own celebrated grave robbing in Philadelphia!

In the 1880s, Washington Square Park (Sixth and Walnut Streets) was a Potter's Field (a burial place for unknown or indigent people). Its quite possible the Quakers who patrolled the graveyard by night to deter tomb raiders may have set up cemetery guns as well. When they could evade the patrols and other deterrents, the body snatchers would dig up fresh cadavers and sell them to the Anatomy Department at Jefferson Medical College down the street (now part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where I work). At the time, this was the only way for medical students to learn the insides of the human body. Though the clandestine practice was common in Western society, it was after all, illegal. Jefferson's involvement was monumental in the advance of medical practice because it spawned the Anatomy Act of 1883. In 1882, Dr. William S. Forbes, chairman of Jefferson's Anatomy Department, was arrested for complicity in the crime of grave robbing. Like the artist Thomas Eakins who risked his career and reputation for principles regarding the importance of anatomy in art education, Forbes, too, suffered public humiliation in achieving his goal of legalizing anatomical dissection in medical education.

The Anatomy Act promoted medical education "by the distribution and use of unclaimed human bodies for scientific purposes through a board created for that purpose and to prevent unauthorized uses and traffic in human bodies." The Pennsylvania law stopped the practice of body snatching and served as a model for other states which adopted similar legislation.

But I digress. Not only will you see one of these automated cemetery rifles at Arlington Cemetery's Museum of Mourning Art, but you'll see mannequins draped in mourning clothes, and a wooden coffin with a face window (so viewers can see if the deceased is breathing by fogging of the glass!). Death symbolism is studied and it was here at the museum I learned that the common cherub representation on modern tombstones evolved from the skull and crossbones! Evidence that the concept of death became socially less terrifying in the Victorian era than it was in prior times. (Click here to read more on the topic of this symbolism at my StoneAngels site.) So be prepared to learn if you go to the Museum of Mourning Art! While it may be shocking at first, you'll more likely be fascinated and leave with a greater appreciation of mortality and how it was viewed by our ancestors!

For more info on the Museum of Mourning Art, please see Arlington Cemetery's site. They even have a Facebook presence!

On the other hand, if Pet Death Taxidermy and Human Execution Devices are more up your alley, then the Museum of Death in Hollywood, CA might be what you seek. Or, if Civil War embalming techniques and Fantasy Coffins interest you, then the site for the National Museum of Funeral History (in Texas) might be worth a visit!


  1. Thanks for the post about the cemetery. My husband Great Grandparents are buried there and as we live in the UK your write up was of great interest. Thanks!

  2. Burke and Hare were Irish, not that that matters.