At the mention of the words “mortuary museum,” one might think of a haunted house or a horror film. But Bill Peoples, the owner of Marietta’s Cawley & Peoples Mortuary Museum, will tell you his livelihood is more than a horror-movie cliché.
Peoples, who also owns the Cawley & Peoples Funeral Home on the same land, is dedicated to educating others on the practices and history of mortuary science.
“My dad had the [funeral home] ten miles from here; he’s since deceased,” Peoples says. “I came back to Marietta and worked for Mr. Cawley and bought the funeral home here and bought my dad’s.”
A museum takes shape
When Peoples and his wife bought Cawley’s funeral home in 1973, they decided that they needed something that would set them apart from other funeral homes. Their “something different” came in the form of a pre-World War II hearse. But Peoples did not stop there; he began to collect everything from coffins to embalming fluids, displaying them in a spare building originally designed to be a multi-car garage.
“These are [pieces] that either [my father] had, or when I bought the funeral home here they had some bottles of things downstairs or up in the attic,” Peoples says.
As Peoples began to flesh out his collection, public knowledge of the museum spread. It seemed as if everyone had a tip for the next piece he should look at.
“I got them in different places from individuals,” Peoples says. “If you just start searching around, you can find things and people know I collect these, so people get ahold of me.”
The museum currently features five antique hearses, including a horse-drawn hearse from 1895. Most of Peoples’ hearses are Packard and Henney brand. With the exception of the horse-drawn vehicle, Peoples actually uses some of the cars for funerals today, upon request.
“But only if people want to use it and we don’t do it for show, but if they have a serious interest in antique cars and maybe their dad or granddad used to own a Packard,” Peoples says. “We still get out and use them.”
A call from Hollywood
Perhaps the most excitement that any of these cars have seen started with a call from Hollywood. Peoples was contacted in 2009 by the producers of an upcoming film, Get Low, featuring Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Robert Duvall. The film’s script called for an early-20th-century hearse and Peoples was the only owner of such a rare item.
Reluctant at first, Peoples turned the producers down several times before finally allowing the filmmakers to take his 1927 hearse, which he calls “Miss Henney,” out for a spin.
“They sent me the script and they all signed it and I realized there weren’t any chase scenes or bullets or anything,” Peoples says. “Plus they used my car throughout the movie from start to finish, so I decided to go ahead and do it.”
Peoples has a section of the museum dedicated to Miss Henney’s starring role in the film, including photos of himself and his family with the stars of the film, as well as the original script. He also plays the film in the museum for visitors to watch as they tour.
A diverse crowd
Hollywood producers are not the only ones interested in Peoples’ collection. Though Peoples does not do any traditional advertising, the museum attracts visitors of all types.
“It’s pretty varied,” Peoples says of his guests. “We’ve got a church group that’s coming through next week. We’ve had Boy Scout troops, chamber of commerce people. With more tourism in Marietta, we’re seeing more people come in on buses, different groups.”
Marietta Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Charlotte Keim first experienced the museum when the chamber booked Mr. Peoples for a “Chamber After Hours” event, during which chamber members visit one local business for the evening.
“When I first heard about it, for our Chamber After Hours, I thought, ‘Well that doesn’t sound like something I’d be interested in’,” Keim says. “Going to a funeral home is not my thing so I didn’t even walk into the museum. But everyone kept walking into the museum and they were enthralled.”
Once Keim saw how impressed her colleagues were, she decided to give the museum a chance and was pleasantly surprised
“There’s a first-class museum in a garage,” Keim says. “It’s not at all what you think it is. It’s not scary, it’s not gruesome. You wouldn’t know that you weren’t in one of the top-class museums in the world.”
The museum is free of charge and averages about three to four tours per week. Peoples says that visitors often expect something a bit creepier than what he has to offer.
“We get some college kids and some who are into the gothic world. They don’t appreciate what I’ve got. They’re looking for more ghoulish kinds of things. That’s not what I’m into.” Peoples says. “We don’t do that. Everything’s tasteful in here and tastefully displayed. We’re just telling them what the history of our business has been over the years.”
Apart from the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas—which Peoples says he hopes to visit—and a few small collections, Peoples’ museum is a one-of-a-kind experience. Peoples hopes that visitors who may expect the museum to be creepy will instead take away an understanding and appreciation for mortuary science.
To meet “Miss Henney” and the rest of Peoples’ collection, call (740) 373-1111.