Victorian exhibit reveals funeral traditions

Video and story by Jacquelyn Kellar | Broadcast Managing Editor

People were dying to get into the East Terrace House Museum for the Sitting Up with the Dead Victorian Funeral and Spiritualism exhibit. The exhibit served to demonstrate Victorian traditions and mourning practices and how much they differ from today’s.

Curator of Collections for Historic Waco Foundation Rachel DeShong talked about the “creepiest” tradition of them all: post mortem photography. For many middle class members of that society, their first and only portrait could have been after their death.

“We have a whole section on photography in funerals. They would pose with the dead,” DeShong said. “They had systems where they would prop the dead up and they would take photographs. So that’s the creepiest thing they did that we don’t do anymore.”

Local funeral director and embalmer James Fine has worked in his field since he was 16 years old. He offered a demonstration of how a Victorian undertaker would preserve the body for viewing. Like many other funeral practices of the time, embalming was also done in house passive voice. The undertaker’s station would be set up in the kitchen where the body was prepared.

“Of course, all of this was done before modern plumbing and electricity in the home, so that’s why it was done [in the house],” said Fine.

The museum is offering one last tour on Saturday for 5 dollars. Although it will not be a themed tour like the previous, it is still an opportunity to view the exhibits and learn about the East Terrace House’s unique history.