The only exhibit of Vatican artifacts outside the papal capital is on display in an unlikely spot — the National Museum of Funeral History, an exhibit hall that celebrates coffins, hearses and other ceremonial aspects of death.
The museum is one of Houston's best-kept secrets, a warehouse-like building in a working-class pocket north of Houston, where soft music and hushed words waft from the sound system, the sweet scent of flowers leaves a faint trail in the air and exhibits extol everything from the birth of embalming to the mourning rituals of the Victorian Era.
But now the subdued atmosphere has an ambitious new addition, "Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes," billed as the only display of papal artifacts outside the Vatican.
It took the museum two years to secure Vatican permission for the project, plus another year to put the exhibit together, said Genevieve Keeney, the museum director who is also a bereavement counselor and licensed funeral director.
Cardinal wrote letter on museum's behalf
It had an advantage in a board member who had a connection to a Vatican official. And Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the Houston-Galveston archdiocese, wrote letters on behalf of the museum.
"We're truly blessed to have this," said Keeney, who spent hundreds of hours painstakingly recreating papal funeral rituals — often from photographs supplied by the Vatican. Even the marble and slate floors, purple flowers, even the number of pleats on the pope's funeral bier carefully match those used during the actual ceremonies.
The exhibit is designed to recreate the experience of attending a papal funeral. There is a re-creation of a pope lying in state at St. Peter's Basilica, flanked by two members of the Swiss Guard. A mannequin representing the pontiff is clothed in the funeral vestments made for John Paul II; the Swiss Guard figures wear blue and yellow uniforms donated by the corps.
Once permission was secured for the exhibition, many of the items that are part of it were donated to the museum by papal tailor Roberto Consorsi. They include two of the three sets of funeral vestments made for John Paul II, who was buried wearing one of the sets, and the embroidered sash — or fascia — the pope wore every day.
When Consorsi came for the opening and first saw the exhibit, he utter only one word: "Perfecto," said Keeney. "He said he felt like he was there again."
Rituals of death on display
Museum officials hope visitors who come for the exhibit will stay for the site's other offerings, which intertwine everyday life with the rituals of death; the serious with the humorous; popular culture with history.
The museum has been quietly drawing visitors since 1993 with its often poignant mix of historical artifacts, offbeat exhibits (the replica of a Civil War morgue) and curiosities that include a collection of human hair fashioned into jewelry — a popular way to honor lost loved ones in Victorian times.
The museum gift shop has everything from miniature cast iron replicas of hearses to mugs bearing the museum's slogan: "Any day above ground is a good one."
The main exhibit room displays coffins ranging from plain to ornate, plus more than a dozen gleaming hearses, including one used to carry the body of Princess Grace of Monaco), and a 1916 Packard funeral bus.
An alcove dedicated to the funerals of presidents is filled with mementoes such as funeral bills from the services for FDR and George Washington, a mourning band worn at Abraham Lincoln's burial and the original eternal flame from John F. Kennedy's tomb.
The museum's collection of hand-carved coffins from Ghana, crafted to represent the life of the deceased, include ones shaped to resemble a crab, a fishing canoe and a chicken.
"Only a certain segment of people are interested in caskets and mourning clothes," said museum president Robert Boetticher. "We feel the papal exhibit will be quite a draw for other people, and that then when they come in they'll see everything else."