The Iowa Funeral Museum in Marshalltown provides a fascinating window into death customs through the ages.
You might not think that a funeral museum would be very interesting–and admittedly, it’s not for everyone. But if you have a love for history and a taste for quirky attractions, the Iowa Funeral Museum is well worth visiting.
Marty Mitchell, owner of the Mitchell Funeral Home in Marshalltown, Iowa, has been a collector of funeral artifacts for more than three decades. In 2017 he opened the Iowa Funeral Museum in a former convenience store located adjacent to his funeral home. It’s one of only a handful of funeral museums in the United States and contains more than 5,000 artifacts.
On a cold February day, I received a warm welcome from museum curator Billy K. Wilson, who gave me a fascinating (and free!) tour.
Billy began at a display showing the elements of a Victorian funeral. “Funerals were usually held in people’s homes during that period,” he said. “The undertaker could provide rugs to protect the floors of the parlor and could also bring in a small pump organ if the family didn’t have a musical instrument of their own.”
Nearby, he pointed out a display case that holds one of the museum’s rarest items: a small metal token from the Civil War entitling the bearer to an embalming.
“Embalming became popular during the Civil War so that bodies could be returned to families,” explained Billy. “People purchased these pre-paid tokens and gave them to soldiers to carry in their pockets so that if they died, their bodies would be embalmed before being sent home,”
I next got an education in the evolution of casket designs through the years. Billy showed me one made in 1863 that has glass sides, which gave mourners the chance to view the body even if the person had died of a contagious illness. Nearby, a more modern casket was handmade by a gentleman of considerable girth who feared a standard size coffin wouldn’t hold him.
“But at the end of his life he ended up being cremated instead of buried, and so the family donated the casket he’d made to the museum,” said Billy.
Several of the caskets on display in the museum have connections to famous people. A 700-pound Nation Seamless Copper Cast model is the same type as that used by Franklin Roosevelt, Elvis, and Malcolm X. Another model, the Belmont Masterpiece Solid Bronze, was the casket of choice for Marilyn Monroe and J. Edgar Hoover.
Another part of the museum has a casket that was popular with members of the Chicago Mob. “Al Capone was buried in a casket just like this one,” Billy said, pointing out the ornate decorations on its ends.
I thought one of the most interesting parts of the museum was its information on the history of embalming. On display are antique bottles and manuals, as well as a combination ice chest/casket that could keep the body cool before the embalmer began his work. Several reproductions of Egyptian canopic jars, which held the organs of bodies that had been mummified, showed the ancient origins of efforts to preserve the body after death.
I was also fascinated by several examples of Victorian hair art, which involved braiding locks of hair into elaborate patterns that were then framed and put up on the wall. (For more information on hair art, see Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri.)
“During an era when premature death was common, hair art was a way to preserve the memory of loved ones,” said Billy.
Another display showed photographs from the 1963 funeral of John F. Kennedy, as well as a picture of the line of white Cadillacs that followed the hearse carrying Elvis in 1977.
To me the most touching display in the museum was a German funeral doll. While the practice was unusual in America, it was common in Europe for families to have a doll made in the image of a child who had died.
“The funeral doll would have been taken out on special occasions to honor the child’s memory,” said Billy. “This one was given to the museum by an Iowa family with a strong German heritage.”
Despite the subject matter, the Iowa Funeral Home Museum isn’t a depressing destination. Instead it’s a powerful reminder that death touches all of our lives. Its displays show that humans have dealt with this universal mystery in a variety of ways and that many of our current customs can be traced back to much older traditions.
When I asked Billy who visits the museum, he said they have a wide range of people pass through their doors, both for individual tours and for group events.
“It may seem surprising, but we have entire families come here to visit,” said Billy. “We hope people will come here to learn and to ask questions. Becoming more comfortable with death doesn’t detract from life–instead it better prepares us to handle death whenever it comes.”
The Iowa Funeral Museum is at 1209 Iowa Avenue West in Marshalltown. Free tours are given by appointment. Call the Mitchell Family Funeral Home at (641) 844-1234 to schedule a visit.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.