Upon the recommendation of a dear morose friend, my old man and I decidedto visit the Museum of Death, which is housed in a former mortuary in the historic Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego, CA. The museum was still locked up when we arrived after noon, but through the glass we could see an Afghan hound peacefully curled up by the door. Ah, but it didn't take us long to learn that this canine bliss was of the otherworldly sort! A small label informed us that these were the earthly remains of Lady, who had been preserved for eternity by her loving owner and who now serves as the appropriate watchdog for the Museum of Death.

Just as we were recovering from the surprise of seeing a dog corpse up close and personal, a guy with his shirt tail hanging out of his pants asked us if we were waiting for the museum to open. Before we could answer, he informed us that he liked the museum so much that he moved into the apartments above it. Who could ask for a better recommendation than that? This young man, whose name was Charles, seemed pretty excited about the stuff on display, and called someone to open the door for us.

The first exhibit to greet our eyes was an entire wall of black and white car crash pictures. In some of the photos, the people just looked asleep, curled up like babies. Their bodies glowed pale against the darkness; the blood matched the night sky. Of course, other pictures were much, much bloodier than that. On the opposite wall hung body bags and toe tags in different colors and sizes. There was one small room devoted to funereal practices- I enjoyed the small Dia de los Muertos altar and the ornate Indonesian funeral float with a gilded dragon's head. That's the way to be sent off in style! There were also casket prices listed on the walls, so that the visitor could start socking his/her paycheck away for the ultimate in afterlife accommodations. We also viewed morticians' tools, historical execution practices, and paintings by Dr. Jack Kevorkian ("Those Easter bunnies with the Jesus marionette would really look great over the fireplace, honey!"). There were silk flowers framing many of the cases and the walls, so that every surface is almost shrine-like.

Much of the museum was devoted to murder and murder victims. There was a collection of art drawn by murderers, letters written by murderers, photos and videos of victims. Many of these items are unsurprisingly bizarre. Who, after all, would be shocked that Richard Ramirez was a malevolent megalomaniac nutcase? I think it's pretty easy to be fascinated by this sort of evil, but it's something with which I'd rather not take for granted, or get too familiar with.

I guess I was looking forward to seeing a collection of ritual paraphernalia and death beliefs, maybe some history of embalming practices, but the Museum of Death was actually much more grisly than that. It's mostly one person's collection of grotesquerie. The museum functions as a disturbing reminder to enjoy life while one can, to wear a seat belt, and to avoid crazy people at all costs. The apparently carefree approach to most of the collection bothered me a bit, but the items on display did get me to thinking about the frailty of the human body, fear, grief, and the end of life.

The admission is 5 bucks, and the exhibits change only when the owners, JD. and Cathy, acquire new stuff. Visitors can be photographed in an electric chair for a nominal fee. Halloween, obviously, is a popular time for this site, but when we went, it was only us and some guy from the L.A. Coroner's office. Our guide Charles told us that folks from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies often visit with intriguing revelations about some of the stuff on display.

Upstairs from the museum was a new alternative gallery space. Charles was excited about that too, and let us go up there to check out the exhibit. For some reason, he especially wanted us to see a photo of Marlon Brando performing certain...um... acts. It didn't do much for me, but their next exhibit was going to feature some freakish farm animals (even a live 2-headed chicken!), which I thought would be a nice change of pace.

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