By Joel Hall
Every week, about 150 curious people in tour buses come to the Pope Dickson and Son Funeral Home at 168 North McDonough Street in Jonesboro to learn about the history of preserving the dead, rather than mourning them.
The funeral home, in operation since 1946, also is home to one of two museums in the country dedicated to funeral memorabilia.
Pope Dickson and Son Museum of Funeral Memorabilia is the only one of its kind in the state, and country, which people can drive up to and view 24 hours a day.
The museum contains several rare finds. It has the original horse-drawn carriage which transported Alexander Hamilton Stephens -- the vice president of the Confederate States of America -- from the Capitol in Atlanta to his final resting place in Crawfordville, Ga., in 1883. It contains one of the first government-issued Fisk iron caskets used to transport the bodies of soldiers during the Civil War.
Abner Pope Dickson, Jr., better known as "Abb," took over operations of the funeral home from his father in 1985, after a 10-year career as an international, touring stage magician. Dickson, Sr., had a penchant for collecting materials of the macabre, a tradition which the younger Dickson carried on after his passing.
The museum, "came out of the collecting that my father started," said Dickson. "He picked up little pieces of cast iron hearses. Some of the salesmen found out that he was collecting these things, so they would keep their eyes open for things that were strange, but related to the funeral business."
Lighted at night and protected by glass, interested individuals can view the devices used in the 1800s, and early 1900s, to transport, clean, and preserve the dead.
Items on display include an early 1900s violet ray machine,- an early electromagnetic device used to lift dirt from the body; an early version of the autoclave, used to sterilize equipment, and manual and early electrical versions of the embalming pump, used to pump blood out of the body and replace it with embalming fluid.
While the museum draws tourists from as far away as Germany and Japan, staff chaplain Tom Shannon said the museum has served as a source of comfort.
"It gives the family somewhat of a distraction from just the mourning process," said Shannon. He said funeral viewing can take from two to six hours, and the museum "gives them time to relax their mind ...It gives them a break.
"A lot of people are interested in history and don't understand the funeral business," Shannon continued. "A lot of times, we can start talking about an object down there and that can lead into deeper conversation," he said.
Dickson said because his father began collecting memorabilia "before other people were into it," the museum contains many items that cannot be seen anywhere else.
"There is [another museum] in Texas, and it is an enclosed museum," said Dickson. "I've got the only one that people can drive up to and see very easily."