Faithful 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.
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?
We 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]