One of the least known and most fascinating museums in Houston surrounds a topic that not everyone is entirely comfortable discussing – funerals.
The National Museum of Funeral History isn’t only a great idea to visit around Halloween, though. The tasteful curation of a fascinating collection from across generations and cultures will soon have you roaming around wondering why you haven’t visited before.
I admit I hadn’t visited the museum since they were in their original, much smaller space so I was wowed by the 30,500 square feet of exhibit space is filled with fifteen permanent displays that explain topics from the lives and deaths of popes, to presidential funerals and the Day of the Dead celebration as well as visiting exhibits.
My favorite room is filled with historical hearses, which will especially amaze car enthusiasts. Rare horse drawn carriages from the 19th century sit beside the actual hearses that carried actress Grace Kelly and U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford. There’s even a 1916 Packard funeral bus large enough to hold a coffin, pallbearers and up to 20 mourners.
The museum even has Roy Rogers and Dale Evans parade car…and you have to see it in person to believe it!
Around each corner are unexpected surprises, including a replica of Snow White’s glass coffin and displays of funeral details of the rich and famous.
A collection of fantasy coffins from Ghana, West Africa captures the personalities of the departed. Imagine being laid to rest in a wooden coffin carved to resemble an eagle, a chicken, an airplane or even a Mercedes Benz! They are truly pieces of art.
Other exhibits explain the history of topics like the history of embalming or 19th Century mourning. They’ll open your eyes to a part of history that isn’t often talked about, but can of course be bypassed if you’re with younger ones who you’d rather not have view them.
Rest assured though, there is nothing gory or blatant about any of the displays. And yes, there’s a gift shop with a great selection of conversation-starters to commemorate your visit.
Whether you’re looking for something you consider a bit creepy to visit for Halloween, or an unusual museum that your friends probably haven’t even heard of…this is the spot.
It’s no secret that I love historic buildings and enjoy exploring for them on all my travels.
Recently a few other members of the media and I had the special treat of a personally guided tour of Houston’s historic Market Square are by Jim Parsons, director of special projects for Preservation Houston.
It included one of my longtime favorites: La Carafe, the oldest commercial building in Houston, and certainly the oldest bar.
The structure may be leaning a bit, but to be honest so are many of its patrons a they walk out the door. Walk inside and you’ll definitely feel like you are time traveling.
It was first built to house the Kennedy Bakery in 1860 which was soon making hard tack biscuits to feed hungry, tired Confederate soldiers. It later became the Kennedy Trading Post, a Pony Express stop, a drug store and a hair salon before becoming the La Carafe bar in the 1950s.
The small space feels cozy and intimate, and is a bit dark regardless of the hour, since it depends mainly on light coming through the front door and window just as it did when it was built. A dim chandelier hanging over the bar and candles on the tables provide ambient lighting to help she a light on refreshments and faces.
Depending on who you ask, that lighting makes this the most romantic or spookiest spot on Market Square.
And yes, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is also known as one of the most haunted places in Houston.
But don’t let that keep you away. The spirits (both the ghostly and drinking sort) are as welcoming as the jazzy selections on the jukebox.
When you visit, be sure to take a look at the bar top, into which visitors for generations have been carving their initials and becoming a part of the history of La Carafe.
813 Congress Street, Houston
Check out the Preservation Houston website to schedule your own 90-minute docent guided walking tour exploring the history of Houston. Their knowledgable guides will help you spot hidden treasures in plain sight that most people stroll past every day without knowing what they’re missing!
Have you ever thought about volunteering during your holiday (or other) travel? It can be easier than you might think, and is a great way to take the focus off of busy schedules and squeezing in more shopping.
These ideas work if you are staying home for the holidays as well of course, but giving back in a place you are visiting can give you a special feeling of connection with the community.
Here are some ideas to start you off:
Ronald McDonald House
RMH supports children and families undergoing medical treatment, typically long-term treatment, and who have often traveled to a RMH from their homes. They have locations around U.S. and the world and volunteers are needed to prepare meals, greet visitors, interact with guests, and much more.
A group of friends and I put up and decorated the Houston RMH Christmas tree at the beginning of the holidays. It was especially fun when some of the young residents wanted to help!
A couple of weeks before that, another group of friends and I got together to make lunch for 50 residents at the Galveston house. Besides doing something that we knew was truly helping out, it was a fun excuse to get together in the kitchen with friends and enjoy each other’s company. It wasn’t a fancy or expensive meal, so with each of us bringing a few ingredients it came together quickly. I even approached a local restaurant about supplying a couple of side dishes, which they graciously did! And a lovely local nursery gave us a few potted flowers to decorate the buffet.
Organizations like this are always looking for people, families and groups to help out with activities, like crafts, playing bingo with residents, and other simple activities.
Meals on Wheels programs provide meals to homebound seniors. Different communities have different rules about how the public can volunteer. Some need people to deliver the meals, and possibly help setting up, checking in delivery drivers and assisting with clean-up.
If you have little ones, you can call ahead to a local chapter to ask how many meals they deliver daily. Then while your kids are trapped in the car in route, they can make small cards to decorate the recipient trays with crayons, colored pencils, stickers and construction paper. Once you can arrive at your destination you can simply drop off the tray decorations knowing you’re your family has brightened peoples’ day! I sued to do this with my Girl Scouts when they were little and they loved being artsy and helping out.
Each December on National Wreaths Across America Day, our mission to Remember, Honor and Teach is carried out by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as at more than 1,400 additional locations in all 50 U.S. states, at sea and abroad.
Wreaths Across America
A trip to the dollar star before your trip, and an evening of prep in from of the TV or at the table after dinner can make a big difference to local homeless shelters. Just stuff new, warm socks with water bottles and granola bars to be taken to a shelter in any city. Another big need is gently used books
Food Banks are always in search of help sorting canned items. This can be a one hour volunteer effort, or all day…but every little bit helps!
Local children’s hospitals will usually gladly accept gently used books and DVDs, coloring books and crayons. Another neat idea is to sort the materials for a small craft project (beaded bracelet, Christmas ornament, etc.) into individual baggies that the kids can get from the nurses station to keep their minds off of being stuck in a hospital.
But you get the idea, and it doesn’t have to be during the holidays. Whether you decide to pull together something to donate when you reach your destination or to dedicate a couple of hours once you arrive, there are so many ways to spread the love!
When I found this amazing (and immense) Woodmen of the World grave marker in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, I had no idea that the person who rests here had important ties to Galveston.
Alexander Sessums (born in 1830 ) came to Texas and married Mary Howell Runnels (born 1835 in Houston) in 1854.
He became an important cotton and wool factor in Galveston, eventually also purchasing the wholesale grocery supply on the Strand from Ware & McKeen. Sessums also ran a mill in Houston.
Sessums’ office was upstairs in the John Berlocher Building (2313 Ships Mechanic Row, across from the Tremont Hotel) which was built in 1858. At the time, the Berlocher was four stories, only three of which remain.
Alexander died at the young age of 43 in 1873.
His monument at Glenwood definitely signifies his success in business, towering over surrounding markers. A beautiful example of Wo
odmen of the World gravestones, the marker shared by Sessum and his wife features morning glories (symbolizing resurrection), roses (symbolizing beauty, for Mary) and acorns (symbolizing immortality for Alexander).
“Broken branches” lay at the base, with individual inscriptions for Alexander and Mary.
It’s well worth the trip to Glenwood to see this stunning sculpture in person.
CLICK HERE for a video showing the entire monument: