Going to Hell? Tickets, Please

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Not dante's "all hope abandon" but J.M. Barrie's "To die will be an awfully big adventure" are the first words to greet visitors to the Edinburgh Royal Museum's exhibition "Heaven and Hell," which opened in July and runs until early February 2001. In its six rooms can be found the contents of an Egyptian queen's workbasket; sculptures of Elvis and Princess Diana; a woolly hat and toy animals from a Peruvian grave; and a paper hat, cigarette case and cell phone to be burned for the benefit of the deceased. These are just a few of the many fascinating objects culled from a wide spread of times and places to show how humans handle their mortality. "We all have to find a way of saying goodbye," says the show's curator Alison Sheridan. "We all have a body, and we all have to deal with bodies. How does that relate to what people believe?"

The show is a department store of customs and artifacts. Many of these are beautiful in their own right — the geometric Native American pottery looks right up to date, and the Egyptian queen's plain gold bangles and gray marble bowl carved with baboons almost have you looking for a price tag. But Sheridan enjoys the chance to display artifacts "in a contextualized way, not just as art objects."

The show offers that context by presenting various themes: how the living say goodbye, how the spirit sets out, what possessions it takes along, the varieties of afterlife, and links between the living and the dead. Singapore's Chinese community supplies a ticket for Hell Airlines, a Visa card issued by the Otherworld Bank, and notes from the Hell Bank Corporation. Besides the right travel documents, the departed may need minders, companions, symbols of power or statements of identity, like the crozier buried with a medieval bishop in Whithorn, Scotland.

There are several destinations to choose from. "The world of the dead ... was the hardest to do adequately," says Sheridan. There are "so many different points of view, [even] within Christianity." A board explains there are some who believe in a big nothing, with a photograph of Bugs Bunny-voice Mel Blanc's epitaph — "That's all folks." The most detailed view of Heaven comes from Islam, with manuscripts and carpets depicting it as a beautiful garden, but there are also several infernos to choose from, including a flame-spewing medieval hellmouth reproduced on the floor. Sheridan herself has no religious background, and so she relied on advisers, feeling that she must "bend over backward ... to offend nobody." She is prepared to alter the wording of captions in response to feedback from, for example, Tantric Buddhists "who say we have misrepresented the concept of the life essence. Some people find it disturbing." One man asked, "'Where is Christianity?' He was standing on Hell."

The final room illustrates how the living relate to the dead by trying to communicate, building monuments and memorials and by acts of remembrance. The Day of the Dead, when the departed return to earth, is celebrated by Mexicans, who build altars in their homes and sometimes make a path of "marigold petals to the house so that the spirit won't lose its way," says Sheridan. "They leave out food, drink and clean clothes. On the final night they go to the cemetery, feast, play music and wish the spirit farewell." The Mexican market stall of sugar skulls, bony brides and grooms, and bulb-operated leaping skeletons is contrasted with Halloween witch masks and pumpkiniana from America.

People of all sorts and ages have visited — over 19,000 in the first month — and contributed. Visitors from Poland, Russia and Malaysia have written their reactions in a book, and there's even a compliment in Romany from a local child. Cards are provided for members of the public to write what they think happens after death. "Rot in a box," says one. Another wants to come back and haunt "people I didn't like." Some have drawn their comments, with winged giraffes among fluffy clouds, or stick men being carried off by devils — entirely in the awfully adventurous spirit of the show.