I think New Orleans is the only place where you can see Museum of Death appear on a Google map without batting an eye. It’s no secret that the city is laden with loss. No need to go into the history, old or new. It’s something that can just be felt, like the part in the horror movie when the five friends laughing and teasing are on the brink of something falling amiss.
Doted in between the luxury hotels of the French Quarter, the museum couldn’t help but strike the interest of my inner October baby. My heart still pounding from the absinthe I had pounded, I entered into a loud silence, muffled by the walls of tshirts for sale, all featuring different serial killers depicted as their own tarot card. A squirrely handsome young man greeted me solemnly from behind the desk, like a funeral director, displaying interest out of boredom and respect out of obligation. We exchanged pleasantries.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
I told him Baltimore.
“So you’re just travelling by yourself?”
I handed him my price of admission and hoped the receipt printed quickly. It was a question I had heard for the millionth time that weekend, yet still grappled to answer.
“Yep, mhm, just me,” I said, shuffling.
I wanted to tell him the truth; I’m alone. I wanted it this way. You don’t have to pity me. I’m fine. But I figured I’d save myself the hassle. It’s not my duty to quell the intrigue and confusion of strangers, handsome or otherwise.
I took my ticket and led myself past the sheet veiling the museum from the storefront to continue my self-guided tour into the different nooks and rooms as if I was taking the grand wake crawl through the local funeral home.
I hurried quickly past the taxidermy. I’ve been forced to drive through Pennsylvania enough times to know what vivid road kill looks like. It was when I saw the artwork of John Wayne Gacy on the wall that I knew this place wasn’t playing. Hey kids, it’s Pogo the Clown — a self-portrait, the spilled inner workings of an adulterated mind on canvas. Just about all of our favorite serial killers were in representation, even Charlie Manson via carefully-encased shrapnel from his dune buggy.
But as I walked through the curtain into the next room, I seemed to find myself ill-prepared by the extensive coverage of terrorism. I was hit with the too soon pangs as I read the same newspaper clippings from the day after 9/ll that I had read on the grocery store newsstand when I was seven. However, my guilt collided with a converse wave; the victims of the lone wolf, despite the romanticizing and sick intrigue of the details surrounding their taking, are just as innocent of the victims of the pack – the victims that are honored, martyred. I looked up at the television mounted in the corner, quietly discussing the 9/ll jumpers — the work of utter godlessness. Living, breathing people reduced to tumbling sacks ending with a splat like a moth against a windshield.
Still, perhaps the victims that are worthy of garnering the most sympathy are those that have been forgotten altogether. They have no life-of documentary like Sharon Tate, no inscription on a sacred marble wall. It’s not until decades later that they even get some nameless recognition through a story in a local Louisiana paper. The clipping was clearly a recent addition, referencing the massacre in Orlando and placed a little bit down bellow and a little bit off to the side of the Kennedy coverage. It told the story of a second-floor gay club in New Orleans that was intentionally set ablaze long ago. No justice had been served, leaving the poor men to join the extensive unsettled spirit realm in the city that refuged those who took their lives.
From the heartbreaking to the absurd, I moved on to a new collection of artifacts. Three aged syringes hung limply from a rusting stand, representing the three different stages of a traditional execution; the anesthetic, the paralysis, and the holy last heartbeat.
The satin ruffles of the vintage burial clothes couldn’t help but raise the most questions of all. Aren’t caskets generally lined with satin, too? So wouldn’t that mean the body would be sliding around a shit ton while it was being curried? Granny’s last shucking and chucking, I suppose. But why do we even dress up the dead at all? Why not just wrap them in a shroud, like some Jesus in the tomb-type shit? And the bloomers? Why does your pussy need panties A.D.? Are people scared their ma is going to be caught off guard by a most-mortem menstrual cycle? Now that would be a faux pas. It was all so Victorian. I looked at the pictures of dead kids propped up in sailor suites. Coping mechanism number one: fuck it, let’s just pretend like they’re still alive.
Aimlessly wandering, I stumbled upon the guest book, standing tall and proud by an antique embalming table. How rude of me that I had almost forgotten to sign.
We all die alone, I penned.
Into the depths I marched — the Theater of Death, oppressively covered in burgundy velvet, was the final stop on the ride. Instead of movie posters, the walls were decorated with the new stories of gone-too-soon celebrities that some truther somewhere probably claimed they saw working at a 7-Eleven last week. THE KING IS DEAD. Elvis Presley. Fuck the king; I wanted to read about the Queen. I scanned the article to find any mention of Priscilla and how she touched his life. Nada. Lord knows I better put on my helmet now as I precaution, because I know when Cilla is inevitably taken from us I’m going to be striking the floor.
Discouraged by all the injustice of it all, I took a seat in the center of the first pew of the theater, quickly becoming entranced by the footage of the Bosnian Genocide playing on the screen to the tune of some fruity French music. Headless bodies lying in self-dug graves. It was all so laughably horrendous, like how I can’t help but chuckle at the meme of Anne Frank. We could make Totino’s pizza rolls! But we have to be quiet 🙁
By this point, my own mortality felt too approachable of a subject to approach. Burn me and throw my in the ocean. Ashes to ashes. Goodnight, sweet prince. That’s always what I had thought. But then I looked down at the tattoo on my arm, still swollen and smudged with excess ink, at the divinely precise geometry of the floral, the shadowing in the center of the leaf bunch strikingly resembling natural casting, the woman blissfully lost in a quiet agony…I could feel the tides beginning to turn. Suddenly, it shattered me to have such beauty, which I regretfully had trouble articulating to the artist aside from a simple “it’s perfect,” reduced to ash in a matter of seconds. Maybe it was more appropriate to let it decompose slowly and gracefully, like the momento mori it is intended to be. I considered what I wanted to be buried with. A bottle of hooch, a journal, a picture of my sister. A new vision of my own death began to form.
Death is permanent, but our feelings that surround it are far from static. When my hypochondria was at its peak, everyday was tainted with the fear of an untimely yet slow, degrading death. With paranoia stirred from my breast condition, I was unable to keep my hands of my tits, poking at everything that felt remotely suspicious, testing for mobility until my entire chest was tender. On my 20th birthday, I sat on the couch of my living room with my mother, sobbing, trying to convince her of what I thought I knew – that I was riddled with cancer and close to death.
But as some of the ghosts of the past have crossed over to the other side, I am no longer afraid. Once too scared to even use blush with talc in it because I had once read that it was linked to cancer, I now smoke all day and drink all night, rarely finding sleep. One man’s self destruction is another’s release from self imprisonment.
As I got up and walked back through the valley of the shadow of death, I realized I couldn’t leave without one of those tshirts. I starred at the display for a good while. Although I was sorely tempted by the depiction of Charlie Manson as the Satanic baphomet, there was one my eye kept going back to. It was Ed Gein graving digging by lantern, the bottom reading The Hermit.
To my disappointment, I returned to Baltimore the next day to find it still very much intact. Feeling like I had just woken up from the most fantastic dream, I was eager to open the floodgates on paper. Sitting in my local coffee shop with some much needed hyrdration, I was just about to reach down for my notebook when I heard it.
“So what kind of smoothie did you get?”
I looked up to see Captain Generic White Man sitting one down and opposite of me staring right in my direction. I came so close to saying it. Do we really have to do this? But I was just tired enough that I held back. So through many painful few-worded answers, I told him strawberry banana and that I had lived in the neighborhood since June.
“I’m eating alone so I thought I’d talk to someone,” he offered in explanation to my blatant unease.
That’s when a middle-aged man joined me on the bench seat, nearly sitting on my bag. Shit, nearly sitting on my lap. That’s when I noticed what must have been his wife at command of a massive stroller, glaring at me. How she even got that thing through the narrow doorway of the shop is a mystery. Her baby cooed dopily with wide eyes. When the staring ceased to cease, I began to get the message. The family was intimidating me out of my seat, which I guess they perceived to be the most babycapped accessible.
I chugged the rest of my smoothie to the soundtrack of twenty questions regarding my work commute and then fled.
As my tattoo met the sting of the sun and the tears began to well, I tried to take solace in the fact that I don’t live in denial of the inevitable fact that we all die alone.