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Funeral Museum Strives to Celebrate Life

Shelley OttAt the National Museum of Funeral History, Shelley Ott-Bellopede sees everyday as just another day above ground. A recent history graduate from the University of St. Thomas, Ott-Bellopede had the unique opportunity to work as a historian intern on an exhibit about papal funerals at the only national funeral museum in the United States.

“I have a heart for the culture surrounding death,” Ott-Bellopede said. “I’ve enjoyed interning at the museum, and I see that death is about celebrating life.”

Genevieve Keeney, Ott-Bellopede’s supervisor and president of the museum, is working to remove the negative connation associated with death and funerals. She said she wants people to understand and accept the many physiological and psychological effects death has on a person.

“We resort back to our faith in death,” Keeney said. “Faith tells us where our next journey is, and we want to help people embrace death in a healthy way. A funeral is like your final party. What would that party say about you? Even though it’s a sad event, this ceremony is universal. It is like a rite of passage. Why not have a better understanding of your final party?”

A permanent exhibit called “Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes” is the largest collection of artifacts supplied by the Vatican outside of Rome. Since 2008, the 5,000 square-foot exhibit includes a full-scale replica of Pope John Paul II's crypt and a reproduction of the coffin used in the funerals of three previous popes.

“The papal exhibit is full of tradition and customs that haven’t changed for 2,000 years,” Keeney said.

Shelley Ott“We wanted to display all the popes back to St. Peter,” Ott-Bellopede said. “We want non-Catholics to have an appreciation for the popes. The dignity of their sacred nature and how these artifacts are presented is just fascinating. It speaks to the nature of the Catholic Church and how this faith expresses man’s relationship to God.”

Through attending St. Thomas and working on the exhibit, Ott-Bellopede developed a deep appreciation and respect for the Catholic faith even though she is not Catholic.

“UST has a strong passion for students and mutual support,” Ott-Bellopede said. “I believe in the value of education and the core values of a Catholic institution. I can’t say enough good things about St. Thomas.”

Keeney said the museum can be used as an educational resource for Houston students and the community.

"The museum is an educational experience that breaks the taboo surrounding death,” Keeney said.

The museum is located at 415 Barren Springs Drive in Houston and open seven days a week. For more information, call 281-876-3063.