Genevieve Keeney, the president and chief operating officer of the National Museum of Funeral History discussed her longtime preoccupation with death, her path to Houston’s funeral museum and the importance of an institution dedicated to the history of the funeral industry.
Q: When did you realize you had a knack for working in fields where you were exposed to death?
A: I’ve always been, through my life experiences, exposed to death in different ways throughout my life and these experiences brought me to an awareness of a disconnect between life and death. I always felt it was important to find a way to bridge that gap of how people today fear death or don’t really embrace death or have misperceived notions of what death looks like or what death should be.
While I was in the military, I was exposed to death and had to care for people who died in our community, family members and soldier alike and I realized I had a very natural talent for working with death.
Q: When did you first develop an interest in death?
A: Since I was seven, I’ve always been curious about working with death. I was very death curious is what I was. I wanted to understand what death was because it was talked about but not really shown and so it sparked curiosity within me. I always sought to feed that curiosity. I would dabble in stuff that would better understand it. Of course, we didn’t have Google back then. For the longest time, it was about trying to find the right profession that would help me to embrace my death curiosity and work with it because that’s what I wanted to do.
Q: Could you trace your experiences working with death throughout your professional career?
A: I went into the medical field because I thought I was going to be a forensic anthropologist. I joined the military and then I realized there were other ways I could work with the dead and the dying and their families and that was through the funeral profession. I learned more about the funeral profession and I got out of the military, became a funeral director and mortician. While a student at Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service, I volunteered at the National Museum of Funeral History and got to know the staff of the museum and low and behold, the position came up to be a project manager and I interviewed for the job, got it and realized I had a platform to educate about death. Death education is very important for us in our society and the museum became this amazing platform to be able do that. I just dove in and it’s now become my amazing passion. I love what I do. I love being able to put exhibits together that help people understand our professions and the importance of our professions and how it has changed over time. At the same time, how we capture memories, the ritual of a funeral, the importance of it in our life.
Q: What’s the importance of a museum dedicated to the traditions and rituals that accompany funerals and the funeral industry?
A: To me, there are several things important about the museum. One is allowing people to have an appreciation and understanding of the funeral profession and the importance of the funeral profession in our lives. I mean, you go to The Health Museum and you could learn about medicine, you learn about your body, your health. You go to the funeral museum and you learn about the funeral professions, you learn about the importance of the ritual of the funeral, you learn about historical funerals. Most of the time, hospitals and funeral homes, you don’t go into them you really need them so the museum gives visitors an opportunity to learn about something in life that’s very important but you get to do it in a neutral educational environment.
Q: What’s your favorite exhibit at the museum?
A: I have to say my favorite one is the cremation exhibit. I’m a cremationist myself and I will be cremated also. Cremation is just another form of burial. I’m a little biased because I helped put it together but it is my favorite.
Q: Are there any overlooked exhibits or artifacts you’d like to shine a light on?
A: Yeah, there’s a lot to see and sometimes if you don’t get into all the nooks and crannies of the museum, you could miss some things. The Ghana coffins of West Africa are something you want to make sure you see. They’re in the international hall and they’re kind of hidden a bit because there are so many hearses.
Q: What do you hope guests take away from a visit to the museum?
A: I hope when people come to visit the museum, they can walk away with a better appreciation of life.
The National Museum of Funeral History is located at 415 Barren Springs Drive, Houston, Texas 77090. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, visit www.nmfh.org, or call 281-876-3063.