The Art of Darkness

Automaton Funeral Parlor

April 3rd, 2014 by Cobwebs

Automaton Funeral ParlorCoin-operated automata used to be a common arcade attraction: When activated, tiny figures would come to life and move through a miniature tableau. Some featured comical domestic scenes: Doors opening in a row of houses to reveal henpecked husbands doing chores, or a bumbling burglar awakening the household. Many, however, featured more macabre content such as haunted houses, torture chambers, and executions.

One such creepy example is the funeral parlor created by John Dennison (who was responsible for several interesting automata). There’s a photo of it at rest here (I couldn’t find an original source for that image), and more detail plus a photo of it during operation here.

The scene depicts a man in his coffin at a funeral parlor. When a coin is inserted into the mechanism, a skeleton head appears behind the coffin, the corpse bolts to an upright position and turns his head. Then, the skull disappears and a devil appears.

An automaton with a similar theme but more realistic figures and miniatures is the St. Dennistoun Mortuary dating from around 1900.

[T]he mahogany cabinet and glazed viewing area displays a Greek Revival mortuary building with double doors and grieving mourners out front, when a coin is inserted, doors open and the room is lighted revealing four morticians and four poor souls on embalming tables, the morticians move as if busily at work on their grisly task and mourners standing outside bob their heads as if sobbing in grief

Although creating a working model might be beyond the scope of most of us, these strike me as a very cool idea for a static diorama. I like the attractive wooden cases used to showcase the scene: Something similar might be done by adding a glass front to one shelf of a bookcase, or using a glass-topped coffee table designed for display. The figures and furniture could simply be dollhouse miniatures repurposed from their more-mundane original intent.

If you’re feeling more ambitious, a quick google will turn up sites and tutorials devoted to the creation of modern automata. Something like this would be a heck of a conversation piece, and the ultimate addition to a collection of curiosities.

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