North Texas Daily

Museum tells story of Victorian death, dying

Museum tells story of Victorian death, dying

October 09
23:44 2012

Suzy Townsend / Intern

The mirrors are all covered, the pictures are draped in black linen, all the curtains are closed, and a coffin is on display in the living room.

Upstairs, someone has set up their embalming kit to prepare the body for the funeral.

The Bayless-Selby House Museum, located on West Hickory, invites visitors to step back in time for its latest exhibit, “Death and Dying in the Victorian Era.”

The exhibit is free to the public and runs through Nov. 10.

Museum assistant Dave McKee, who designed the exhibit and gives tours, decided that October called for an eerie theme of death.

“I thought, ‘Well, let’s have something educational about the culture surrounding death in the Victorian times,’” McKee said. “Our mission here is to tell Denton history. This house in particular represents Denton in the Victorian Era.”

When they walk in, guests will notice a wicker casket lying on the floor in the parlor. This casket was used to carry the body in and out of the house.

A small table sitting next to the casket shows various pictures of family members posing with their deceased loved ones.

“It sounds very creepy and horrible to us,” McKee said. “But they often didn’t have photos of those who died. Often the only photo you might have of your child might be after their death. They wanted to capture a picture that celebrated life, so they would pose them as if they were alive.”

Photo by: Michelle Heath

People would also cover the mirrors to show that personal vanity was not important and the focus was on the one who had died, he said.

Curtains were drawn to show the outside that the house was in a period of mourning.

The wake would usually last about three days, and the body would be kept in the house the entire time.

Flowers were brought to funerals to mask the smell of the decomposing body. Usually the area surrounding the casket would be entirely covered in flower arrangements, McKee said.

Embalming would also take place at the house, which is displayed in the upstairs bedroom of the museum.

“You come to the exhibit and find out it’s not creepy,” McKee said. “It’s not ghosts. It’s just an educational look at what people did and how their culture was quite different back then.”

Genevieve Keeney, president of the National Museum of Funeral History, helped with the exhibit by lending the house museum many of the items on display.

“People get to see how the deceased would be prepared and how we honored our dead,” Keeney said.

This preparation and mourning period also influenced funeral homes and the way funerals are currently conducted, Keeney said.

“As towns grew and people died that’s where funeral homes came from, just one primary location.” Keeney said. “That’s why funeral homes today look so homey on the inside.”

Denton county resident and museum visitor Lauren Martinkus found the exhibit informative.

“I was expected something really creepy, but instead I found it really interesting,” Martinkus said. “Some of it was really kind of weird, but I never knew where some of the customs we do today came from.”

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays.

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