Exhibit offers look into funerals of Victorian era

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David Minton/DRC
An upstairs bedroom at the Bayless-Selby House Museum serves as an area for embalming Friday as part of an exhibition called “Death and Dying in Victorian Times.” The house has been transformed to re-create a Victorian-era at-home funeral.
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An air of death hangs over the Bayless-Selby House Museum and the Historical Park of Denton County.

But it’s a good thing.

Denton County museum officials are making final tweaks to a new exhibit, “Death and Dying in Victorian Times.” The display, which will be open from today to Nov. 10, features photos, tools and burial items used from the late 1800s to early 1900s to bury and honor the dead.

“We’re hoping it’s not too creepy,” said Chelsea Stallings, museum assistant.

The idea for the exhibit actually came from a TV program. On the program, the parents of a stillborn child had a funeral for the child and took photos.

“It’s such a weird thing, so foreign to us, but it was done a lot back then,” Stallings said.

She and another assistant, Dave McKee, continued to discuss death in the Victorian years and how people would mark the occasion of a person’s passing. Working with the National Museum of Funeral History, museum officials put together the exhibit for display in the Bayless-Selby House Museum.

On the first floor of the house, the exhibit takes up two rooms. In one room is a large casket used to display the deceased for a wake. The departed would be surrounded by lots of flowers and candles, which were used to mask the scent of death.

All mirrors in the house have been covered with black fabric, and the same fabric is draped around photos of other family members in the house. The fabric indicates mourning, Stallings said.

In the second room downstairs is a wicker casket used to transport the body from the home to the place of burial. The wake caskets were often made of cast iron and thus were extremely heavy to move, Stallings said.

In more recent times, Stallings noted, some people are choosing to be buried in wicker caskets, which are biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

Along with the wicker casket are funeral cards, photos of deceased children and locks of hair clipped from dead family members to be made into art.

“It would be gross to think of someone doing that, but this was very, very normal at the time,” Stallings said.

In a frame on the wall is one such work of hair art that is about the size of a pie pan and a few inches thick.

“When you see how intricate this is … it’s like quilting,” Stallings said of the piece.

An embalming room is set up on the second floor, appearing just like it would have during a visit from the town’s resident undertaker. There are tables used to cool, drain and decorate the bodies as well as the tools and chemicals of the day.

Another exhibit in the house that focuses on John B. Schmitz, a local furniture store owner and undertaker, is nearly complete.

The museum usually closes at 3 p.m. on Saturdays, but on Oct. 27 it will be open until

9 p.m. to coincide with Halloween-themed events on the Square, to give people more of an opportunity to check out the exhibit, Stallings said.

Peggy Riddle, Denton County Museums director, said the new exhibit is an example of the changes she is planning to bring to the historical park.

The goal, she said, is “to show everyday life of different time periods and different events in people’s lives.”

“I am very pleased they have taken a scholarly approach,” she said, “but have made it very interesting to the everyday person wanting to see what life was like.”

BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is blewis@dentonrc.com


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