The Iowa Funeral Home Museum is certainly one of the more unusual attractions in the Hawkeye State, and one that just might make you scrunch up your face and go “eeewwww.”
But it’s really quite fascinating in that weird way that we’re all fascinated by, well, weird things. But think about it. It’s not that weird because we’ve probably all been to a funeral and will most likely be the guest of honor at one sooner or later, so this is just a closer look at things that are a part of everyday life.
Located in Marshalltown, the museum contains a collection by Marty Mitchell of the Mitchell Family Funeral home next door. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the 1887 horse-drawn hearse in a glass garage adjacent to the funeral home.
The museum itself is a former Casey’s General Store. It was a rather small general store and is capable today of displaying ten caskets from various time periods and manufacturers across the country.
The one that gets most of the attention is the exact same model that President John Kennedy was buried in. It is solid mahogany, weighing 500 pounds, and made by the Marsellus Casket Company of Syracuse NY.
That’s actually the second casket to have carried America’s 35th president. Ask Marty Mitchell about the first one. He’s quite knowledgeable of presidential funerals and other well-known figures.
The museum has caskets identical to those that were the final resting place for Marilyn Monroe, J. Edgar Hoover, John Wayne, and Elvis, among others.
It’s kind of interesting (in that creepy kind of way) to be able to touch the inside of the casket – to lift up the lining and see to cushioning, to kick the tires, so to speak. You can’t actually get in one. Marty said I was a little weird for asking, but you know you were thinking it!
You can also close and lock a casket and an accompanying burial vault, thus getting an idea of how heavy and secure they really are. And by the way, the heaviest casket in the collection weighs 1200 pounds and is made of nickel alloy. The Meany Casket Company in Trayer Iowa makes those heavy duty babies.
One of the weirder caskets is actually a coffin. Note that a casket is what most people choose these days. It is oblong with top, bottom, two ends and two sides. A coffin narrows at the waist and continues to the feet.
The creepy coffin dates to 1863. It’s made of iron and has a little glass window where the face is, allowing for the living to see the occupant after the casket is closed. These were created for people who died of contagious diseases. It was a public health necessity to seal the coffin as soon as possible, but the window allowed the grieving a final view of their loved one during the funeral.
Among the other creepy things on display at the Iowa Funeral Museum is a Victorian doll dressed in black. When a child died, a lock of its hair and some fabric from its burial gown were used to create a doll that families would keep at home. It was common to give the dolls their own seat at the table during holiday gatherings.
All together now: “eeeewww.”
As creepy and weird as it all sounds, the museum serves a valuable purpose. Marty says it opens the way to conversations among family members about what they want and don’t want at a funeral, about what they believe in the afterlife, and other very personal issues.
“I see many people having these conversations as they walk around, and as they leave, they are still talking,” Marty said. “And it’s better to have this conversation now and make some decisions now rather than when everyone involved is consumed with grief.”
The Iowa Funeral Home Museum is open only Tuesday or Wednesday afternoons, or by appointment. Admission is free. Their phone number is 641-844-1234.
For another rather creepy experience, visit the Villisca Ax Murder House in southwest Iowa.
Image credit: Diana Lambdin Meyer