Houston’s Weirdest Museum Homes Abraham Lincoln’s Hair and ‘Fantasy Coffins’

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At the National Museum of Funeral History, “every day above ground is a good day”. That’s the quirky slogan for the Houston institution, which features an expansive collection of items ranging from an authentic lock of President Abraham Lincoln’s hair and a coffin for three to a pair of hiking boots worn by the late Robin Williams in the movie “RV.” .

The bizarre 30,500-square-foot museum is the largest of its kind and houses the most funerary artifacts in the world. It was founded in 1992 by undertaker Robert Waltrip to “educate the public and preserve the legacy of one of mankind’s oldest professions”: end-of-life care.

The original hiking boots worn by Robin Williams in the 2006 film RV.

Ariana Garcia

As Waltrip expanded his family’s funeral home, he needed to dispose of some of the older tools of his trade and was looking for a way to preserve them. What began as a repository for his own grave goods has since grown into a rich cultural experience for thousands of visitors, says Genevieve Keeney, the museum’s president, CEO and curator.

“It has grown into an excellent educational institution to help people understand one of life’s most certain events that affects us all,” says Keeney. “The museum is a neutral environment for them to learn about the customs and rituals we all tend to engage in when confronting our own deaths or the deaths of loved ones. It’s really about memory and creating a legacy.”

Collection of historic hearses.

Collection of historic hearses.

Ariana Garcia

Inside a 1972 Japanese ceremonial hearse.

Inside a 1972 Japanese ceremonial hearse.

Ariana Garcia

While some may find the subject of death and funerals macabre or taboo, Keeney strongly disagrees. “I think the museum helps people put this dark subject in a more acceptable light and find a way to embrace it better,” she says. “I hope everyone leaves the museum to live a fuller life and appreciate the fact that we will all die one day.”

The stigma surrounding death has also made the museum one of Houston’s best kept secrets. “What I like to tell people is that we’re in hiding,” says docent Jackie Clift. “Nobody hardly knows we’re here. It’s the history of the funeral industry and that’s kind of off-putting to some people. But really, history is history.”

The hearse used to transport the bodies of President Ronald Reagan and President Gerald R. Ford.

The hearse used to transport the bodies of President Ronald Reagan and President Gerald R. Ford.

Ariana Garcia

The museum’s 16 permanent exhibits include an extensive collection of various artifacts from presidential funerals, including George Washington’s authentic $99.25 funeral bill, the original eternal flame from President John F. Kennedy’s burial site in Arlington National Cemetery, and the former hearse carry the bodies of President Ronald Reagan and President Gerald R. Ford.

An authentic strand of President Abraham Lincoln's hair.

An authentic strand of President Abraham Lincoln’s hair.

Ariana Garcia

Another section of the Abraham Lincoln exhibit includes a replica of his coffin (and a replica of him lying at rest) and an authentic lock of hair used by Dr. Leale, the first doctor to arrive at Ford’s Theater cut it up so he could access the President’s wound. There is also a replica of the Derringer pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Lincoln.

One of the most recent additions to the exhibit is a pair of gray socks patterned with fighter jets in formation that belonged to the late George HW Bush. The socks are identical to the pair he was buried in at his College Station gravesite in 2018.

A pair of George HW Bush socks identical to the pair in which he was laid to rest.

A pair of George HW Bush socks identical to the pair in which he was laid to rest.

Ariana Garcia

A former funeral director with a certificate in cremation and embalming, Kinney’s favorite exhibition is The Story of Cremation, which she helped curate by popular request from guests. The exhibit, which delves into the history of cremation and misconceptions about the industry, is housed in a replica of the first crematorium built in America.

The National Museum of Funeral History has an exhibit dedicated to cremation.

The National Museum of Funeral History has an exhibit dedicated to cremation.

Ariana Garcia

However, Keeney’s favorite item is also very popular: a “money box” on display near the entrance, alongside other coffins and caskets from the past. The acrylic structure, which at one point had real dollar bills and coins embedded, was decorated with $1,000 in currency, but part of it was stolen. The coffin is now down to $643. “It’s probably the most unique object in the museum itself, because who knew you could take it with you,” says Keeney, laughing.

An acrylic box with embedded dollar bills and coins.

An acrylic box with embedded dollar bills and coins.

Ariana Garcia

The museum’s newest exhibition, History of Funeral Photography, features an eerie guessing game that allows visitors to speculate whether people in a photograph are dead or alive. You can even take a selfie on a chair where corpses have been propped up for family photos. In fact, the museum’s various “selfie spots” invite you to do so.

A guessing game in the museum's exhibition on post-mortem photography.

A guessing game in the museum’s exhibition on post-mortem photography.

Ariana Garcia

A section titled “Thank you for the memories” pays homage to famous and notorious celebrities who have passed away. Among the items are Williams walking shoes, the lipstick-stained original exterior of Marilyn Monroe’s crypt, and a wall of program booklets and memorabilia from the memorials of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Elizabeth Taylor, and more.

Other exhibits cover the “rich and fascinating history” of New Orleans jazz funerals; 19th-century mourning customs with jewelry and artwork made from the hair of the deceased; the customs of the election and burial of a Pope (all contained in a life-size replica of St. Peter’s Basilica); and “fantasy coffins” from Ghana in the shape of fish, chicken, airplane and spring onion.

A spring onion coffin from Ghana.

A spring onion coffin from Ghana.

Ariana Garcia

Next year, the museum will present a certified copy of the Shroud of Turin, an ancient cloth bearing the image of a crucified figure believed by many to be Jesus of Nazareth. Beginning in May, the museum will be offering virtual tours, which Keeney hopes will attract new curious visitors.


When she first started at the museum 16 years ago, Keeney says it had something of a “scarlet letter” that has changed over time as the community has grown to better understand her mission.

“Like ‘Ugh, funeral museum, why would I want to go there? That’s crazy. This is morbid. That’s disgusting. “Now we can go through the church and [I hear] “This place is so amazing. I heard amazing things about it from someone.’ It’s just great to see it’s being received the way I hope it will be…because there’s no one else like us in the nation.



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