Where do we go after we die? While nobody on this side of the great divide knows for sure, if you want a more intimate look at what happens to us when we die, there may be no better place than the Museum of Death.
Founded in 1995, in a building that was one of the first mortuaries in San Diego and had previously been owned by Wyatt Earp, the Museum of Death began as an outgrowth of the controversial Rita Dean art gallery. The gallery’s owners held the first-ever art show featuring work made entirely by individuals on California’s death row, which they followed up with a show featuring artwork by serial killers from all over the country.
Seeing that there was a genuine interest in these subjects—and also a void in education about death in America—they went on to create the Museum of Death, using original artwork, letters, and even personal effects from serial killers as the backbone of the museum’s collection.
Shortly after it opened, the museum moved to its current location on Hollywood Boulevard, with its iconic front gate decorated with a giant skull and blooming roses. The building previously served as a recording studio that counted Pink Floyd among its client. The deadening agents used to dampen sound in the recording studio remain in some of the walls, lending a suitably funereal hush to the exhibits.
Besides its extensive collection of one-of-a-kind artifacts serial killer memorabilia, both infamous and obscure—including the guillotined head of Henri Landru, known as the Bluebeard of Paris—the Museum of Death has expanded to house relics and objets d’art relating to death in all its forms. Within its walls you can find collections of body bags and coffins, more than 20 photo binders filled with matchbooks from funeral homes and mortuaries, original crime scene photos from the Manson and the Black Dahlia murders, a taxidermy room, replicas of execution devices, displays on headhunters and cannibalism, and much more.
The Los Angeles location features a recreation in tableau of the Heaven’s Gate cult suicides—the largest mass suicide ever committed on American soil. Included in the display are bunk beds from the actual site, as well as the only known Heaven’s Gate suicide outfit to remain in existence, complete with purple shroud and a pair of the distinctive Nike shoes worn by all the cult members, which were taken off the market after the incident. The effects are laid out on the bed, “pretty much how the bodies were found.”
Today, the Museum of Death has a collection that is far too extensive to display all at once, and is growing all the time. Every day they receive phone calls and emails from individuals looking to donate or sell items. In June of 2014, they opened a second location, the Musée de Mort Orleans in New Orleans, which features one of the last oil paintings done by famed “suicide doctor” Jack Kevorkian, as well as the actual Thanatron machine which Kevorkian used when assisting suicides.
The Museum of Death is open seven days a week (the New Orleans location is closed on Tuesdays) and admission is $15 “per body.” The self-guided tour takes about an hour, but you can spend as much time as you want examining the displays or watching films that include footage of autopsies, the Heaven’s Gate recruiting video, and the infamous Traces of Death movie that presents scenes of actual deaths.
While everyone is welcome at the Museum of Death, the owners stress that it should probably be reserved for mature audiences who are prepared for “a good dose of reality.” Enough people have passed out while going through the museum that they’ve even got a name for it: “falling down ovations.”