The Fun in Funeral

It’s a universal fact of life that people are weird about death. It comes to all of us, and yet is always such a surprise – do we all secretly think that we’re immortal? A culture’s funeral rites are always very telling, just think about how much we can learn about the Egyptians through mummification, it reveals so much about that civilisation and how they view the afterlife.

graves from Kerepesi Cemetsry
Graves from Kerepesi Cemetary

But I’m not exploring the Ancient Egyptians in this post, rather, I’m exploring Hungarian attitudes towards death via a trip to the Kegyeleti Museum in Kerepesi Cemetary. Now, ‘kegyeleti’ can mean several different things; the guide book translates it as ‘tribute’ whereas the museum itself prefers ‘piety’. Both terms, for me at least, conjure up classical associations of grave-goods, libations, and a sense of honouring ones’ ancestors. Mummification may no longer be the method by which we are prepared for the afterlife, but European funerary traditions are just as interesting.

A statue of a mourning woman in Kerepesi Cemetary
A statue of a mourning woman in Kerepesi Cemetary

I suppose really, the only things that change are the costumes.

The Kegyeleti Museum itself is tucked way in a building that looks like it’s there to deal with the paperwork involved in burial. I almost thought that I was in the wrong place, but then I noticed a little sign directing me up the stairs. A woman greeted me, she spoke a little English, enough to be welcoming and to point out the little booklet that explained the displays. Despite the potentially grisly subject matter, the Kegyeleti Museum doesn’t focus on the process of death, but on the objects that we use as part of the funeral rites.

A funeral carriage from the Kegyeleti Museum
A funeral carriage from the Kegyeleti Museum

The horse-drawn coaches, the widow’s blacks and even the priestly vestments worn when performing the service are all on display.

A widow, a priest and a coffin from the Kegyeleti Museum
A widow, a priest and a coffin from the Kegyeleti Museum

When confronted with the material aspects of funerals and mourning, one is struck by just how much pomp and ceremony is involved in saying goodbye. A final farewell, is well, final. You only get one chance to give someone a funeral, to celebrate there life that it should be special, memorable, and -as one funeral home near me has on a mass-produced box- a ‘unique memorial to a unique life.’

Now, this museum, although not quite unique (there are similar museums in Viennna and I think one in the USA too) is certainly quite something. It could quite easily have been a collection of coffins, but they showed so much more than that. Alongside the big set-pieces of the carriage and the funeral tableau, there were smaller pieces on display.

These illustrated and illuminated texts stood out.


My Hungarian is not good enough to understand this, and I’m not sure if I could interpret the gothic script well enough to approximate what it says for a quick google translate. I was, however, taken with the type. This is what comes from living with a Graphic Designer, sometimes it becomes all about the aesthetic.

And then there was this…

I don’t think that Christianity ever gets the credit it deserves for being as grisly and gory as it is. Does anyone have any idea what those floating heads mean?

The Death Mask of Jaszai Mari (1850-1926) a famous Hungarian actor
The Death Mask of Jaszai Mari (1850-1926) a famous Hungarian actor


I still find death masks incredibly unsettling.

Those were the highlights from the Kegyeleti Museum, if you’re ever in Kerepesi Cemetary, I would recommend paying them a visit. The museum is free, and it’s nowhere near as morbid as you think it’s going to be!


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rose says:

    Hi Jack!
    Death seems to be topical in museums? Bristol has these exhibitions just opened, I have not visited them yet:

    Death: the human experience

    Documenting Death

    Plus we have the fascinating cemetery at Arnos Vale

    When I was in Prague earlier this year I noticed that their museum is looking at this subject too:

    Best wishes,

  2. mrsruthwebb says:

    Have you been to the Coffin Works in Birmingham? Admittedly, I haven’t…yet. They recently had a really fun exhibition of some very alternative coffins. Learnt about it through their facebook activity. I think it should be on your ‘must visit’ list!

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