Do you want to see an embalming machine?

I spent a good part of my childhood in cemeteries. My mom, an avid genealogist, was on a ferocious hunt for my great-great-great-grandfather’s grave and dragged me and my siblings with her. Sometimes I’d stay behind in the van and read a Sweet Valley High book, but often I walked the rows of graves with her, reading the inscriptions on the stone markers. Years later I researched cemetery development and Victorian death rituals as part of my graduate studies.

One of the embalming machines.

It’s no wonder then that I did not hesitate to say yes when Dale, senior curator of cultural history, asked me last March if I wanted to see an embalming machine. Within a few hours I found myself inventorying a collection of funerary materials that the Indiana Funeral Directors Association planned to donate to the Indiana State Museum. The collection included several embalming machines, embalming fluid, burial clothing, cooling boards, a makeup case and other embalming tools and equipment.

A bottle of embalming fluid and burial clothes.

After the museum’s Collections Review Committee approved the donation, Dale and I made a second trip to pack and transport the goods. Now that everything has been numbered, photographed and catalogued, the museum wants to show you these really cool, albeit, slightly unusual objects. That’s what I’ll be working on this year, developing an exhibit that will let you see all the death-related artifacts in our collection and blogging about the process, too.

A cooling board.

You can get a sneak peek of some of the objects now. Visit our online database. Type the keyword “death” into the search box and you’ll get over 500 hits. Browse through them, and let me know which objects intrigue you most and why. Which would you like to see on exhibit?

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8 Responses

  1. Hi Meredith,

    I would like to see on exhibit all-things-embalming, burial and mourning attire, condolence letters, children’s caskets, and the aspirator. Does the museum have mannequins that it can dress up in the old mourning clothes to recreate a funeral scene?

    Keep up the great work! Sounds fascinating!

  2. Want to see an embalming machine? Do I EVER, along with the other fantastic artifacts in the collection. I think a “must have” in the exhibit is Mrs. Meriweather’s death mask. It just begs to have its history told: Who was she? How old is it? Why was it made? Was this commonplace at the time? Why aren’t they made anymore / how has our way of grieving changed?

    PS – Does anyone else find the embalming fluid bottles intriguing or am I weird? And I would like to know what a “casket lamp” is.

  3. After looking through the database, here are a few things that stuck out to me:

    1.Advertising fans- why did they use fans for advertisement? Was this a popular way to advertise?

    2. Death masks- why were these made? What was the custom behind this?

    3. Condolence letters- I don’t know about you, but I sure love being nosy and reading other people’s mail!

    4. Memorial necklaces

    Hope to see these in the exhibit!

  4. Hi Meredith

    Thats great article on embalming machine and even great collection . Thanks for this information and even your efforts are appricated and laudable .


  5. Hi Christy,

    Thanks for your comments and for taking the time to browse our online collection! We have a really nice nineteenth-century mourning dress in the collection that I plan to display. I also hope to exhibit mourning attire worn by the bereaved from other cultures. It should make for an interesting comparison.


  6. Hi Kat,

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who wants to see an embalming machine! I wish we knew more about Mrs. Meriweather’s death mask. Currently, all we know is that this mask was donated from southern Indiana. I plan to dig through some census and death records to hopefully turn up more information about the woman. If so, I’ll write a blog entry devoted to the process of researching Mrs. Meriweather. Death masks are not uncommon; families cast their loved one’s face around the time of death to keep as a memento. Thanks for reading and for browsing our online collection. Please stop back again.


  7. Hi Madonna,

    Yes, fans were a popular way for funeral directors to advertise their business. Like other organizations, funeral homes have to promote themselves in order to prosper. Calendars, pencils, magnets, thermometers, and bottle openers were, and in some cases, still are popular forms of funeral home advertising, too. Like you, I enjoyed reading the condolence letters; some were sent to T.C. Steele’s wife from strangers and others were written by the artist’s most intimate friends. Regardless, they were all lovely and surely a comfort to his widow. Thanks for your remarks, and please drop in on this blog in the future!


  8. Hi John,

    Thanks for stopping by to read the blog and to browse our online collection. Please visit our site again!


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