Museum of mortality, with ghost; Death: In a cellar in San Diego's historic gas lamp quarter is "the first museum in the United States dedicated solely to death."


SAN DIEGO -- You know you're in for something a little different when you pay $5 for the red casket-shaped ticket to the Museum of Death and spot the handsome, long-haired Afghan hound lying peacefully inside the entrance.

A little too peacefully.

You eye Cathee Shultz quizzically. "She won't bite!" says Shultz, 37, a cheery woman who runs this place with her artist husband, J. D. Healy, 38.

She points out the card on the wall, which explains that Lady belonged to a wealthy woman who couldn't bear to be parted from her beloved pet, not even after its 1971 death. A taxidermist came to the rescue.

Now Lady is "on loan" to this morbidly eccentric creation of a lively couple in a cellar set amid trendy bars and restaurants in San Diego's historic gas lamp quarter.

Billing itself as "the first museum in the United States dedicated solely to death," the one-floor collection of the accouterments of mortality is set in a most appropriate building.

Here, more than a century ago, below a brothel and a casket maker, worked a mortician named E. W. Tebbutt. In failing health, he killed himself in 1894. But he still haunts the premises, Shultz says.

"He startles many people, but I'm very fond of him," says Shultz.

She's the one who welcomes wary visitors, particularly parents with children along, with a candid warning about "explicit" exhibits, and sees patrons off with a cheery, "Have a nice life!" Healy's the one who builds displays -- the full-size guillotine, for instance -- and scavenges for material, such as the letters of Charles Manson.

They acknowledge that this 4-year-old institution, which grew out of an art gallery they founded, is a profit-seeking enterprise. But they insist it has a deeper mission: to look squarely at death in a culture that often averts its eyes.

"We have such a taboo on death in our culture," Shultz says. "We make it evil."

The discomfort with death, she says, derives not only from our own fear of dying but from the historical association of corpses with the spread of contagious disease. Yet a century ago death was a familiar guest in American homes.

"A woman who had six kids could expect three to die. People died at home, and the parlor was for displaying the body," Shultz says. "Now we see death as not natural, which makes no sense."

Death, they argue, has become the privileged turf of certain professionals -- physicians, coroners, undertakers, cops. Police, in fact, stop by regularly at the museum, sharing Polaroids from homicide scenes. "It's a release. They don't want to go home and share their work," she says.

Tonight, as bar-hopping revelers live it up on the street above, a couple of dozen curious visitors descend to look over this hodgepodge of the quaint, exotic, scientific, anachronistic, shocking and, often, the merely gruesome.

There are body bags in various sizes and a nicely framed display of toe tags. There are colorful exhibits on the Mexican Day of the Dead, when the departed return to visit friends and family, and a Laotian Buddhist monk's funeral float.

There are flower-framed photographs of dead American children from early in this century, a common practice in the early days of photography, when the death photograph was often the only photograph ever taken of the child.

There is a handsome 1881 embalming table and an assortment of old mortuary tools; a death mask of John Dillinger and a 1923 issue of an embalming magazine discussing, from a strictly professional point of view, the late President Warren G. Harding.

Then there's the truly grisly stuff: police photos of victims of train and car wrecks, mercifully in black and white, and a videotape capturing horrifying footage of violent deaths.

The museum boasts what must be the largest collection in existence of art by convicted serial murderers. An entire room is devoted to mass murderer Charles Manson, including records he made as a struggling folk singer before he made his gory reputation.

It's not for everyone. This evening, one gentleman storms out, telling his friend he'll meet him outside. "I could have lived my whole life without coming here and still died a happy man," he declares.

The occasional visitor reacts even more viscerally. "We've had people faint. Probably two dozen in the four years we've been open," Shultz says. "We've had a Marine faint, a couple of Navy guys."

Healy is a little defensive when asked whether the museum accords too much space to violent deaths, which are, after all, only a small percentage of all deaths.

"The stuff that's most interesting to us is the history of the funeral industry. But a lot of people just want the shocking stuff, and we have a business to run," he says.

Plenty of visitors take it all in stride. Jim and Sheila Bolek, from Phoenix, Ariz., were not sorry they dropped by with their sons, 15-year-old Travis and 10-year-old Nathan.

"The kids have seen a lot of death on TV and in the movies when it was just gratuitous," says Jim Bolek, a graphic designer. "This tells you what death really is."

Travis calls the displays "pretty weird, very graphic," but says he's glad his family noticed the sign and came in. "I never knew what a homicide cop goes through," he says.

While Shultz and Healy get along fine with the mortician's ghost, they are having trouble with their landlord. Unless they work out a deal, the museum might have to depart these premises in November. They say they had plans to open a second museum in Los Angeles, perhaps in Hollywood. Now they might move their whole collection to the new site.

That collection grows every day, partly by attracting donations from patrons. This day they have received a pacemaker, accompanied by a note explaining that it was removed from the deceased before cremation, standard practice with implants and prostheses. In the mail has arrived a peaceful snapshot of an elderly woman who has passed away in her easy chair, her favorite book open on her lap. It is a gift from the woman's grandson.

All this immersion in the artifacts of death has certainly not cast a pall over the spirit of the curators. Quite the contrary.

"I love to educate myself, and death is my subject," Shultz says.

"Life is a fragile thing," Healy says. "You ought to live it up. Be happy with every breath you take."

Pub Date: 9/22/99

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