THE SMITHSONIAN Institution invites us all to go to hell, in 10 queasy steps. The invitation specifically refers to Chinese Hell, which has been recreated in the form of 20 "Hell Scrolls of Taiwan," installed on the rotunda balcony of the National Museum of Natural History.

The two sets of scrolls are a rare sight and a rare fright. They depict in vivid color and horrific detail the torments the soul of a departed sinner must undergo before it is reincarnated.

Such scrolls are used in funeral rituals that may extend over several years, although modern mourners sometimes zip through the periodic ceremonials in 49 days. Outdoing Dante, the scrolls depict 10 levels of hell, detailing a multitude of sins and their particular punishments, which range from induced homesickness through evisceration to . . . well, this is a family newspaper, generally read over breakfast.

Persons who during life gathered merit through such acts as releasing fish may be allowed to take shortcuts. Some sins cannot be expiated, however: A person who destroys another's marriage can never be released, not even when hell takes a holiday during the month-long Festival of Ghosts.

Dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, the six-foot scrolls were donated by retired diplomat Neal Donnelly of Chevy Chase. Because they often were burned afterward, the scrolls are painted on flimsy paper, and few full sets are known to survive.

You don't have to be Buddhist to heed these scriptures, for their maxims are eternal ("Honor and wealth are only as a spring dream") and the sins they deal with are universal:

Are you a careless camper? The penalty for setting fire to a mountain is crucifixion.

Members of 2 Live Crew perhaps should take note that leading people into evil by singing lewd songs gets you tossed into a river full of snakes.

Throwing paper with writing on it into a privy shows disrespect for the sages. This is fair warning to anyone who relegates old Weekend sections to the bird cage.


Hell Scrolls of Taiwan -- Through Dec. 28 at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th and Constitution NW. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Metro: Federal Triangle.