This Museum Tries to Make Death Seem Less Frightening

One block off Bourbon Street sits a shrine to the violent and macabre—but its purpose is to educate, not disgust.

In New Orleans, there is a haven for those obsessed with true crime. The Museum of Death sits just one block from the loud and intoxicating Bourbon Street, where tourists drink hurricanes and revel in the city’s vibrant jazz music scene. The museum sits quietly, beckoning to tourists with its windows covered in bright red curtains and a sign boasting its horrors. A history of death hangs around New Orleans like Spanish moss, so it is the perfect place for such a collection.

The Museum of Death first opened in 1995 in San Diego, California, by J.D. Healy and Cathee Shultz; it has since moved to Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Then, almost 20 years later, they opened a second location in New Orleans, Louisiana, which houses about a third of the current macabre collection.

And a macabre collection it is. A euthanasia device called the Thanatron, created by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, sits prominently on a museum wall. Letters from serial killers, written to J.D. Healy himself, sit in glass cases. The infamous clown artwork of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. hangs above those cases. Antique embalming tools cover the walls. There’s even a collection of human bones and animal taxidermy. But the museum isn’t about sensationalizing death—it’s about education.

“The reason [the museum] kind of started was the lack of education of death in our society, the taboo nature, and the inquisitiveness of it,” said Scott Healy, J.D. Healy’s brother and curator of the New Orleans collection. “We wanted to educate people.”

How do the Healys acquire this bizarre collection of artifacts? Some come from serial killers themselves.

“The sourcing starts out by reaching out to a serial killer and asking them if they’d be interested in donating something, because they can’t profit or sell their stuff,” said Healy. “Then you start interviewing them. Correspondence will start with the donation and go from there.”

They also attend police auctions. Healy said that many places hold onto items for years and no one knows what to do with them. After they find out that a museum can use them to educate people, they’ll donate or sell their items.

Walking through a museum of crime scene photos, serial killer paraphernalia, and body bags seems like a nausea-inducing experience. However, the museum is surprisingly welcoming. It is a brightly lit space, staffed with friendly attendants who give you a rundown of the space’s rules: no photos and no phones. Healy wants the museum to be a safe space where visitors can come in, learn about death, and not feel uncomfortable. All of the grisly objects are hidden from public view, until you part the curtain behind the front desk. Then, you’ve entered the world of death.

This isn’t to say that there are not some rather visceral reactions to the museum’s artifacts. Healy has a whiteboard that tracks how many visitors have vomited or passed out in the New Orleans location over the past four years (it is a surprisingly low number). When asked about the whiteboard, he chuckled and said those reactions are rare.

In most cases, Healy said, “People open up, they ask questions. When you walk through and see real things attached to these stories, it becomes personal.”

Death is complicated and the Museum of Death knows it. So why not try to understand it a little better? The museum successfully addresses the taboo nature of death and our obsession with it. It provides a haven for true crime lovers, who can speak freely about their favorite serial killer. It is also a place for those who are trying to understand death and can find a more personal connection to tragedy.

“This is a place where you can be creepy and not be judged for it,” said Healy.

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