Buried Deep In Ohio’s Amish Country, Memories Await At The Famous Endings Funeral Museum

fdr accordianFaithful Gadling readers might recall that I’m not a big fan of sightseeing, but I read about a funeral museum on BBC Travel this week that I’m, excuse the pun, dying to visit. The Toland-Herzig Famous Endings museum (please don’t call it the Happy Endings museum as I accidentally did) in Dover, Ohio, has more than 1,500 funeral-related items from famous and should-be famous people from around the world, including Elvis Presley, Abe Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe and Robert E. Lee, to name just a few.

Aside from predictable death-related fare, like funeral cards, programs and the like, the museum also has some downright bizarre pieces such as some cookies with Rodney Dangerfield’s likeness that were served at his funeral, a Sherry Lewis lamb-chop doll, and a primitive “head block” embalming device that was used on the notorious outlaw Jesse James. I caught up with John Herzig, a funeral director at Toland Herzig Funeral Homes who founded this unique little museum to find out more about this unique, free museum.


How did you decide to open a funeral museum?

I had a hobby of collecting autographs and I got an autographed picture of Joe Louis, the boxer, and for some reason when the guy sent it to me, he included Joe Louis’s funeral program and that’s how the whole thing got started.
I kept getting funeral-related items and then people encouraged me to display them, so I set up a display case in the funeral home and there was a lot of interest. Over the last 5-6 years, our funeral home has turned into a museum and we get visitors from all over the country.

What kind of tourists do you get?

We get busloads of tourists from Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York – all over. It’s been more than I would have ever expected. A lot of the tours are mystery tours. We have a lot of Amish in this area, so we get tourists for that. This is another site on their itinerary.

What is a mystery tour?

The people in the group don’t know where the tour guide is taking them, so it’s fun to see their reaction when the bus pulls up in front of a funeral home. It’s a surprise for them. I bring them on a guided tour and tell them stories about what my wife had to put up with as I built this collection.

Give us an example.

A year and a half ago, Jack Kevorkian passed away in Michigan. I got my wife and told her, ‘let’s go to Michigan,’ so we did and we attended his funeral. I do those kinds of things to her on the spur of the moment. She’s been through a lot.

Does she enjoy traveling around the country going to funerals?

She doesn’t mind. We also try to do things she likes to do. Like shopping. We don’t go to that many celebrity funerals.

Do you have some unique caskets in the museum?

famous endings funeral homeWe haven’t really gotten into caskets. It’s mostly personalized items that celebrities have used. For example, when Rodney Dangerfield died, his wife made cookies with his caricature on them and they passed those out at the funeral. Ed Bradley, he had a jazz funeral and they had an Ed Bradley handkerchief. Jerry Lewis had a Lamb Chop doll.

So you have some of the Rodney Dangerfield cookies that were served at his funeral. Aren’t those stale by now?

Yes, we have the cookies and a bookmark, and his funeral program, which had his signature red tie on it.

How did you get one of those cookies?

Through the funeral home where they held the funeral. It was all wrapped up and, of course, it’s dry now, but it’s preserved very nicely. It’s in a display case so no one can touch it. It’s held up pretty well.

How do you get most of the pieces that are on display in the museum?

The vintage things I have, like items from Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, I’ve gotten in historical auctions, but the newer ones come from other funeral homes. I have Robert E. Lee’s funeral card, I have a lantern from the horse drawn carriage that carried Lincoln’s (body) through Albany, New York. I have a shell from JFK’s 21-gun salute.

I have Elvis Presley’s mother’s original funeral arrangements. Probably the most expensive item is Marilyn Monroe’s original funeral program. Joe DiMaggio made her funeral private and made a list of the people who were allowed to attend her funeral. We’ve got that.

How much did that cost?

I’d rather not say. My wife would kill me if she knew.

You don’t tell your wife how much these things cost?

No. Not really. Most of them aren’t that expensive. (Laughs)

What are your most popular items?

The things I mentioned, plus Ed Sullivan is popular. Elvis Presley’s funeral program. When FDR died, there was a famous photo in Life magazine of Petty Officer Graham Jackson who performed for FDR at the White House. And when they loaded the funeral train, he was weeping and it was a famous photo. I have the accordion from that photo. It’s a popular item.

What other unusual items do you have?

I have a head block device that was used to embalm Jesse James that I got in a Wild West Museum when it closed. It was a device that the person’s head was positioned on when they are embalmed at the funeral home. It’s a little bizarre.

I also have the menus from the train that carried Eisenhower’s body from Washington, D.C., to Abilene, Kansas. They had breakfast, lunch and dinner. I recall they served fish for one of those meals but I don’t remember what else they ate.

Some would say it’s morbid to create a funeral museum. I assume you disagree?

I don’t see anything morbid about it. It’s history. I have items from the gentleman that developed super glue. Items from Samuel Morse, who developed the Morse code and telegraph. Wilson Greatbatch, the guy who invented the cardiac pacemaker. People that aren’t famous but that changed how we live. Everyone enjoys their tour here. We try to show funerals and death in a very positive manner.

[Photo Credits: Famous Endings Museum, Flickr user Gerald Fitzpatrick]

Conned By The Amish?

amish buggy trafficWe like to believe in the inherent honesty and virtue of the Amish. They are devout people who eschew material comforts in favor of simple living. In a country where the almighty dollar is king, and the gotcha capitalist ethos of say-anything-to-sell-it rules, they stand apart, as craftsmen who sell what they make with their own hands at fair prices with no nonsense. Or do they?

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I’ve been patronizing the Amish shops in Cattaraugus County for many years and have always believed that the Amish sold quality, handmade items at great prices. But I had an experience at an Amish shop recently that led me to believe that at least some of the Amish might be no less immune to deceptive salesmanship than anyone else.amish shopTwo years ago, my wife and I purchased a small, supposedly handmade Amish throw rug from the Wengerd family shop on Dredge Road in South Dayton, New York, and, although the rug was very cheap, we loved it. It’s not a beautiful rug, but every time we look at it, it reminds us of a place we love and a people we greatly respect. In July, we were back in Cattaraugus County and made another visit to the Wengerd family shop, which is located on a desolate road, deep in the Amish belt, where horses and buggies outnumber vehicular traffic, 2-1.

I asked the young man with a characteristic Amish bowl haircut if they bought the rugs or made them on premises.

“My sister makes them right here,” he said rather convincingly.

Given the low prices- $18 for a small rug or $39 for a larger one, I should have been skeptical, but it’s hard to know how an Amish teen would value their own time and labor, and I wasn’t prepared to believe that the God-fearing Amish would lie like a rug.

amish rugI bought a nice, big multicolored rug and just as we were about to get into our car, which was parked at the end of their two-buggy driveway, a FedEx truck came barreling down the lonely road.

“FedEx comes out here?” I said to my dad. “But how can the Amish even order anything without phones or Internet?”

Rather than pull out right away, I waited to see where the truck was going, and, sure enough, it pulled up right in front of the Wengerd family’s shop. The driver hopped out and began to unload long, spherically shaped bundles that looked very much like carpets. The young man who sold us the rug had retreated into the family home after we left the shop in front of the house and didn’t come out to greet the truck. We wondered if he didn’t want to come out and sign for the bundles with us in sight.

The driver must make deliveries to the shop regularly because he went right into the unlocked shop and plopped the big bundles down. When he came back out, we asked him if they were carpets.

“Sure feels like it,” he said.

I drove off, feeling a bit shaken and confused. Were the Amish ordering carpets from China and passing them off as handmade? How would they do that without phones, cars or access to the Internet? How could I be so dumb to think I could get a handmade rug for $39?

I returned home and drafted a letter to the Wengerd family to ask them to clarify where the rug was made, because I was curious to see if they’d respond. Three days later, I received the following letters in reply.

Mr. Dave Seminara,

In response to your recent letter, about the rugs, our daughter and her husband make the rugs that we sell in our shop, that is correct. The blue rolls of fabric that FedEx unload that day came from Arkansas. It is quilt lining. We do not buy rugs from China or any other place. When my wife read your letter she was laughing so hard that I asked, What is so funny? I hope this explains it all, if not feel free to come out and see for your self. I want to thank you for writing about your conserns.

Levi Wengerd

Hello,

You wrote about the rugs. I just had to laugh that you thought that we get our rugs through FedEx. The items we were getting when you were here was a wide fabric for quilt backings 118 inches wide. Our daughter Amanda makes all those rugs as our son told you. They have 2 looms and they weave these rugs through the winter and now they don’t have enough rugs for what we sell so they are busy with the looms again!

Elizabeth Wengerd

The handwritten letters immediately restored my impression of the Amish as an honest people who are unwilling to swindle people to make a buck. But why had I been so quick to assume the worst? As American consumers, we are subjected to so much false advertising and bogus sales claims that it’s easy to become cynical to the point where even the Amish are suspect.

Still, I was curious to know more about how Amish families like the Wengerd’s can do business without access to the Internet or telephones, so I sent them a reply asking to know more. Perhaps not surprisingly, they never responded. Sometimes the things that glitter really are gold but don’t expect the Amish to clue you in on all their secrets.