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New Orleans and the Great Beyond: The Museum of Death

Representations of death can remind us what it means to be alive, and the Museum of Death in the French Quarter captures that idea. Are you brave enough to see what it has to offer?

Last year, I taught a class on the visual culture of death and dying. On the surface, this might not be the most appetizing topic, but the students signed up, and during the course of the semester talking about death became a natural springboard into talking about life.

skull museum of death
A skull with carvings at the Museum of Death. (Photo courtesy Museum of Death)

For example, looking at the meaning of the skull, whether in a Mardi Gras parade or a classic Dutch portrait, we found ourselves discussing how the acknowledgement of mortality can relate to the celebration of life (and vice versa). In film, photography, or painting, representations of death have the ability to serve as a reminder of what it means to be alive.

The Museum of Death, which started out 20 years ago in San Diego before moving to Hollywood in 2008, is a repository of the visual culture of death, and it now has a location in the French Quarter. The museum challenges the viewer but also provides access to a wealth of unforgettable items, including the “suicide machine” of Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who helped numerous terminally ill people end their own lives, and jailhouse letters composed by the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski.

Looking at the meaning of the skull, whether in a Mardi Gras parade or a classic Dutch portrait, we found ourselves discussing how the acknowledgement of mortality can relate to the celebration of life.

ghost parade
A New Orleans parade of the undead variety. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

JD Healy, the founder and owner of the Museum of Death, says that he would like the patrons who visit the museum to realize that “even though some of displays are graphic in nature, we hope that they leave with a great feeling to be alive and to live their lives fully.”

The ghost, cemetery, and voodoo tours in New Orleans are evidence that locals and visitors alike have an interest beyond the here and now, and the Museum of Death is an appropriate addition to a city with a long and deep history.

For Healy, the museum serves to remind him of the richness of life through the reminder of one’s mortality: “Even if you’re here for a hundred years, that’s really nothing in the big scope of things,” he says. “So have a great life, as you’ll never know when it will be up.”

Opening in New Orleans 20 years to the day after the original location in California, the Museum of Death in the French Quarter is developing its own local identity. Here are seven of the fascinating elements of the current collection:

  • A stunning array of taxidermy, as well as a skeleton of an alligator chomping down on a human leg bone
  • An assortment of Manson family photographs
  • An original painting by serial killer John Wayne Gacy
  • The Theater of Death, situated in the back of the museum, with its walls adorned with newspaper front pages recording momentous and tragic moments in American and world history
  • The early history of embalming
  • A real shrunken head
  • An intriguing set of true crime photographs from the first half of the 20th century

The Museum of Death’s exhibits will constantly evolve, Healy says. “[As a] young museum, we are always on the lookout for new and interesting local artifacts and stories.”

More than just the gruesome and ghastly, the museum offers an avenue into the myriad visual cultures of death. Are you brave enough to see what it has to offer?

Christopher Garland lives in the Lower Garden District, where he enjoys evening strolls, happy-hour beer, and close proximity to the basketball court at the corner of Magazine and Napoleon. An Assistant Professor of Writing, Christopher reads and writes for work and pleasure. Find him on Instagram, @cjgarland12.

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