Taxidermy Makes Funerals Fun in Wisconsin

Nothing says “cheer up” like taxidermy at your funeral. Right?
Taxidermy chipmunk rides a plastic deer in this diorama at Madison's Cress Funeral Home

We have no shortage of weird things in Wisconsin, but still…you don’t expect to find a funeral home full of quirky, Victorian-style taxidermy dioramas.

Funeral director Salvadore “Sam” Sanfillippo was a WWII vet who, as he would tell it, was left for dead on Omaha Beach during the 1944 Normandy invasion. But the ride to the morgue kickstarted his heart, and he lived a long and odd life until April of 2013, when he died at the age of 93.

At some point during his career, Sam decided people attending funerals needed something to do. So he began assembling a collection of taxidermy in the basement of his Madison, Wisconsin funeral parlor. He collected roadkill, chipmunks accidentally killed by golf balls, albino squirrels and fish for taxidermist Vito Marchino to transform into humorous anthropomorphic dioramas.

Families of taxidermy rodents enjoyed a carnival. Chipmunks danced in a “Topless Girlie Show.” Albino squirrels drove Barbie cars and played basketball. Cowboy chipmunks of the Old West rode plastic horses beside toy dinosaurs.

According to the State Journal, some 26,000 visitors came to see the unusual display in its first year open to the public.

Taxidermy chipmunks at the bar at Cress Funeral Home in Madison

Topless Girly Show taxidermy chipmunk diorama at Cress Funeral Home in Madison

Squirrel saloon taxidermy diorama

Bucky Badger taxidermy at Cress Funeral Home in Madison

Taxidermy chipmunks in the Woodland Fair diorama at Cress Funeral Home

Albino squirrels taxidermy

Taxidermy birds in a tree diorama

Taxidermy chipmunks playing poker

More taxidermy chipmunks at the fair

Taxidermy chipmunk cowboy rides a plastic horse at Madison's Cress Funeral Home
Photos courtesy of Extreme Craft

Due to the high cost of maintaining the roughly 500 piece collection, Sam’s family decided to auction it off in March of 2014. The auction generated a lot of interest. Even Mike Zohn of Obscura Antiques and the Oddities TV show was present to take home some of the legendary pieces. The squirrel bar scene pictured above, which is now part of his private collection, will be on exhibit at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn later this month.

If you have pieces from the Cress Funeral Home taxidermy collection and are interested in contributing them to Cult of Weird contact me.

Got a tip on another weird place? Tell me about it!

Lonesome George: How The AMNH Turned the Last of a Species Into Taxidermy

Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island giant tortoise, just ended his run at the American Museum of Natural History. The 200-pound tortoise was brought into captivity in the Galápagos in 1972. Despite on-going efforts to find him a mate, another Pinta Island tortoise was never found. When he died of natural causes in 2012, at the age of 102 years old, master taxidermist George Dante was tasked with the unique challenge of preserving the last of a species both for beauty as well as scientific study.

How was that achieved?

Go behind the scenes with the AMNH team in this short documentary to see the taxidermy process that brought Lonesome George back to life.

Preserving Lonesome George

A taxidermist works on Lonesome George at the American Museum of Natural History

Now that the exhibit has ended, Lonesome George will return to his home on the Galápagos Islands.

Carl Akeley killed a leopard with his bare hands

Famed Taxidermist Carl Akeley Turns 150


Carl Akeley, the grandfather of modern taxidermy, turns 150 this week.

Recently, tales of the legendary tough guy have been circulating around the web, recounting his first expedition for the Chicago Field Museum in 1896, when he was attacked by a leopard. Akeley was hunting ostriches at dusk, when he took a shot at what he believed to be a warthog rustling around in the tall grasses. To his surprise, a leopard jumped out at him, which he managed to fight off and kill with his bare hands. He is said to have strangled the animal while his arm was down its throat.

Legendary taxidermist Carl Akeley stands with the leopard he killed with his bare hands

But Akeley is best known as an accomplished taxidermist, sculptor and inventor, pioneering many new methods of taxidermy and museum dioramas still in use today.

He began making a name for himself in New York, where he earned a place in the spotlight with his mount of the famous Barnum & Bailey circus elephant Jumbo, who was struck by a locomotive. He went on to the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1886, where he created the world’s first complete habitat diorama.

For Akeley, taxidermy was a tool for conservation. This meant dangerous expeditions into the African wild to study the species, document their habitats, and bring down most majestic specimens he could find for display in museum dioramas. His work for the American Museum of Natural History lead to the creation of his masterpiece, the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

Among his contributions to the taxidermy world are the use of lightweight mannequins rather than sawdust to mount the skins, and the study of anatomy to achieve more life-like work.

Akeley died of a fever in the Congo during his fifth expedition to Africa.

Habitat Dioramas as Early Tools in Wildlife Conservation

For more on the life of Carl Akeley check out Kingdom Under Glass and Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.

Carl Akeley’s Muskrat Habitat Diorama

Taxidermist Carl Akeley created the muskrats, the world's first habitat diorama, in 1890 at the Milwaukee Public Museum

I grew up in awe of the muskrat display and other astounding (and often creepy) dioramas at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Though I have made many expeditions into it’s dark, fascinating labyrinth throughout my life, it was not until I read Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life that I realized the significance of this work.

Legendary taxidermist Carl Akeley created the muskrat case in 1890 while working at the Milwaukee Public Museum. It was the world’s first habitat diorama, and went on to inspire exhibits around the world.

Muskrat taxidermy habitat diorama created by Carl Akeley at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Muskrat taxidermy habitat diorama created by Carl Akeley at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Muskrat taxidermy habitat diorama created by Carl Akeley at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Akeley eventually ended up at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. His masterpiece is the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, though he died of a fever during an expedition in the Congo before it was completed.

How to Taxidermy a Mouse

If you are looking to embark on your first taxidermy adventure, you should not begin without Mouse: A Taxidermy Workshop Manual at your side.

Taxidermist and workshop instructor Margot Magpie assembled this 70-page step-by-step photo tutorial to guide you through the entire process, from ethically sourcing your dead critter, through the process of preserving and stuffing, into the final positioning of your completed anthropomorphic mouse.

The book is also available in a kit that includes the surgical gloves, tanning solution, scalpel, and other supplies you will need for your project. Except for the frozen mouse, of course, as that probably wouldn’t fare well in the shipping process. A list of ethical suppliers is provided to aid you in obtaining your mouse.

Get your copy of the Mouse taxidermy manual right here. Get the book and the taxidermy starter kit together here.

How to taxidermy a mouse book by Margot Magpie

Margot teaches sold-out taxidermy classes at the London curio shop The Last Tuesday Society, as well as other locations in London. Her blog is here, and you can find her taxidermy-related work for sale in her Etsy shop.