Museums of Death


In Western Europe there are a variety of museums, and in several countries the scenery is enriched by special museums that are dedicated exclusively to the topics of death, dying, funerals, and remembrance. Because these entities are largely considered social taboos, the existence of such institutions appears to be anachronistic. Therefore, one is forced to question their origin and goals, as well as their social and political acceptance.

The fact that the museums are relatively new or still in their founding or building phases seems to indicate a changing attitude toward death and dying. Questions about dying with dignity, modern forms of funeral services, or an adequate way of mourning and remembrance are more insistent in the twenty-first century than they were in the 1980s. Regardless of a societal change in attitude, these museums are neither called museums of death or dying nor do they otherwise bear the terms dying or death in their names. Instead, they bear more culturally accepting translations, calling themselves, for example, Museum of Piety (Budapest, Hungary), Funeral Museum (Vienna, Austria) or Museum for Sepulchral Culture (Kassel, Germany). Despite their often misleading names, none of these museums makes any effort to hide its subject; notably, death and dying.

These museums primarily foster a culture-historical approach related to the public interest in history, culture, and the arts. Therefore, collections and exhibitions focus strongly on the impressive examples of funeral and cemetery culture, pictorial documents of these events, and curiosities. In comparison to other specialized museums, like museums of bread, glass, or chinaware, the funeral museums have above all a responsibility for their visitors, who always react very sensitive to the subject of death and dying.

The Vienna Funeral Museum best exemplifies a museum of funeral culture. Founded in 1967 as a branch of the Vienna Municipal Funeral Department, the museum is a business museum whose goal is to present the history of the company in objects, pictures, and written documents. Accordingly, the collection comprises many of the company's products and equipment such as coffins, urns, funeral vehicles, shrouds, and more. However, the Vienna Funeral Museum also documents the entire funeral culture in Austria, with an emphasis on Vienna. Of particular emphasis is the history of the funeral in Vienna. At the beginning of the twentieth century numerous competing private funeral homes were replaced by a municipal funeral company. The main reason behind this move was a social concern: The desire for evermore luxurious funerals—as exemplified by the proverbial Schoene Leich ("beautiful corpse") in Vienna—had driven the citizens to excessive expenditures that were even pushed further by the commercial interests of the funeral directors.

The Vienna Funeral Museum became the model for a similarly organized museum in Budapest whose Hungarian name, Kegyleti Muzeum, may be best translated as Museum of Piety. Opened in 1991–1992, this museum is associated with Vienna and Austria due to the long-lasting common history within the Habsburg monarchy. In addition, the Museum of Piety strives to consider the regional and confessional differences of Hungary. Both the Vienna and the Budapest museums are branches of their respective Municipal Funeral Departments and receive no public funding.

Unlike the Vienna Funeral Museum, the Museum fuer Sepulkralkultur, (Museum of Sepulchral Culture) in Kassel must meet public and political acceptance. Although it is supported by the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Friedhof und Denkmal (Association for Cemetery and Memorial), it was built entirely with public funding. The costs of running the museum are mostly paid by the federal and state government, the municipality, and churches.

In accordance with the statute of its governing body, the mission of the Museum of Sepulchral Culture is to promote public understanding of the culture of funerals, cemeteries, and mourning. In addition to its permanent exhibition, which presents objects of funeral culture within Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on a total area of 1,400 square meters, the museum features special exhibitions that focus on various aspects of the cultural history of funerals, current developments and trends, and artistic confrontations with death, dying, and mourning. An affiliated library consists of a large stock of monographs, catalogues, and offprints, as well as an extensive collection of original source material. The museum is home to various archives, such as a collection of graphic art consisting of 15,000 pieces, which serve as a resource for research and scientific studies throughout Europe.

The two cemetery museums in Riehen near Basel, Switzerland, and in Hamburg, Germany, owe their existence to the personal commitment of single individuals. The collection Friedhof Hoernli (Hoernli Cemetery) was compiled in a tireless effort by an employee of the cemetery and has been on display since 1994. It was the goal of the collector to preserve old and vanishing items used in everyday funeral and cemetery activities; its purpose is to document the history of less-recognized professions dealing with death. The museum is supported by a private association, receives some funds from the cemetery administration, and otherwise relies on donations from sponsors.

The situation was similar in Hamburg. Individuals with a strong interest in preserving the world's largest cemetery formed the Förderkreis Ohlsdorfer Friedhof (Society for the Promotion of the Ohlsdorf Cemetery), and opened the Museum Friedhof Ohlsdorf (Museum of the Ohlsdorf Cemetery). The museum is dedicated to raising public interest for the Friedhof Ohlsdorf cemetery, and for promoting historical and contemporary funeral culture. The collection in the museum, on display since 1996, focuses mainly on the history of Hamburg's cemetery culture. Since the Ohlsdorfer Friedhof was opened in 1877 as the first American-style park cemetery in Germany, it is of significant importance to the European cemetery culture.

The National Funeral Museum in London, which was initiated by an undertaker from London's West End, has a status all its own. It was the growing public desire to reintroduce the old horse-drawn hearses that provided the impetus to start the museum. The result is an impressive collection comprised of both historical hearses and one of the oldest motorized funeral vehicles. The collections have been complemented by historical funeral equipment, old drawings and prints, shrouds, mourning dresses, and mourning jewelry. In addition, an extensive library was founded. Since the museum is entirely a private institution, the funeral company covers all expenses. Training and seminars are other sources of income.

The Netherlands' Uitvaartmuseum, known as the Museum of Exit, is still in its initial phase. Supported by a private association, it has a complete collection that has attracted considerable attention. The museum is an important impetus for a renewal of the funeral culture in the Netherlands, where in a liberal and open-minded atmosphere new funeral rites have developed. The Netherlands have become famous for a remarkable variety of funeral-related artistic forms.

Finally, the Museu de Carrosses Funebres (Museum for Hearses) in Barcelona, Spain, which specializes in the collection of historical funeral vehicles.

Increasing public awareness and presenting the goals of the museums is part of the mission of the European Federation of Funeral Museums (EFFM). Founded in Vienna in 1998, the association unites museums that specialize in the culture of funerals, cemeteries, and mourning, and whose common intention is to disseminate historical and contemporary values in this field.

See also: Cemeteries, Military ; Cemeteries, War

REINER SÖRRIES

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