Nothing brings out the ghouls like Halloween. Among seasonal holiday collectibles, Halloween reigns supreme. Antique dealers will tell you the scarcity of Halloween collectibles is due in large part to the materials they were made from...paper mache’, cardboard, and wax. Halloween collectors are often the same niche market that collects funeral and mortuary items referred to as ‘Postmortem Collectibles’ or ‘Mortuary Memorabilia.’ Likewise, these items are rare and thus highly prized.
According to antique dealer and 34-year licensed mortician and embalmer, James King at the Spring Antique Mall, the most popular collectibles are photographs that depict the deceased in coffins in the 19th century. The earlier photos were sepia; and later in black and white.
“Photographs of black individuals are especially rare,” said King. “Photography was very expensive at that time. Only someone of substantial means could afford it. Depending on the condition, these photographs can be valued at over $1000; closer to $1500.”
In King’s private collection of mortuary memorabilia is a unique photograph of a ‘little person’ in a coffin, referred to at that time as a ‘midget.’ Also hard to find…old catalogs with caskets or funeral attire that a bereaved family could choose for their loved one. King has a 1916 catalog with funeral clothing, and a 1929 casket catalog, in his personal collection (top right of photo).
Old embalming instruments would be second to photographs, according to King. Probably not as obvious to the lay person, but for a funeral professional or a serious collector of the macabre, these items would not only be instantly recognizable, but highly prized. Also in King’s private collection is an early 1920’s metal hip joint replacement (bottom left).
Other mortuary collectibles include casket plates (several in photo), cremation urns, and advertising collectibles, all of which King has collected over the years, including a kitchen metal match holder that advertises…”Furniture, Carpets, Oil Cloths, Shades, and Undertaking & Embalming.” (In photo middle right). Ash trays are pretty prolific. Crucifixes and crosses are more popular with the home décor market, and some items serve well for utilitarian purposes, like coffin handles for towel racks.
Ephemera (paper) advertising collectibles are priced on condition, but lower in value. Examples would be cabinet cards which were handed out at funerals bearing the name, date of death, and age of the deceased, and also included a prayer. Calendars, matchbooks, hand fans, and holy cards, are plentiful and reasonably priced for the entry level collector.
“At the high end are skulls and skeletons,” said King. “A skull is valued at over $2500. A full, articulated and strung skeleton is worth over $15,000.”
King has a greater opportunity than most to locate mortuary memorabilia, traveling the country holding seminars for first responders, city emergency managers, and hospitals, on the subject of mass fatalities. He’ll be addressing a group of morticians on this subject in October, at Houston’s National Museum of Funeral History located in north Houston at 415 Barren Springs Drive. The museum houses the country’s largest collection of funeral service artifacts.
“It’s an excellent place to learn about the fascinating history and evolution of the funeral business,” added King.
The museum also plays host to corporate events and parties. Almost assuredly the occasion would be lively, and reportedly, organizations are dying to schedule events there. For more information, visit the National Museum of Funeral History website at http://nmfh.org/ and ‘Like’ their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/funeralmuseum/?fref=ts
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