The Mummy Museum
by Yvonne Moran
Yvonne Moran is a freelance writer and a
former general assignment daily reporter. Her stories have been published in
The New York Times, Connecticut Post, The Advocate, Greenwich Time, Irish
America Magazine and Fairfield County magazines, amongst others. She
contributes travel stories to several websites and also writes for national
Irish newspapers and magazines. She has been writing about travel for more
than a decade. Yvonne contributed an article on Chiapas for the
issue of Mexico File, as well as articles on Talavera pottery for the
August/September 2001 issue and on baby turtles for the
They stare back, lifeless and shriveled, at
the curious onlookers, unable to say who they are or where they’re from.
They’re the mummies of Guanajuato’s world-famous Mummy Museum.
During the high season, hundreds of tourists
daily form snake lines outside the tiny museum to view the macabre images of
the afterlife. “When the family didn’t or couldn’t pay the cemetery’s
maintenance fees, employees opened the tomb and removed the body to the
nearby cemetery,” said Carlos Montiel Martinez, my very informative guide,
during my visit to see the 100-plus mummies housed in glass paneled
displays. He’s been involved in the museum for three decades, having begun
working part-time there when he was 14 years old. Most of the bodies were
removed from the cemetery’s crypts approximately six years after burial
because the family hadn’t paid the dues required every five years, said
Current fees are approximately 500 pesos, or
$51. The museum, which has four rooms and three corridors, is the only one
of its kind in the world. But what’s remarkable is the pristine condition
(relatively speaking) of the bodies, some of whom were buried almost 150
The museum is located in the city of
Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the small state of the same
name, near the city of Leon. It is several hours drive from Mexico City.
Juan Saramillo, whose museum number is 92, is
the best preserved body in the museum. His eyebrows and eyelids are intact
(unlike most of the other mummies), and he has facial hair, including a
mustache. He died on 1 January 1903 and was removed from the cemetery seven
years later. “We don’t (exactly) know why they are conserved,” Martinez
said, adding that there are several possible reasons.
A constant semi-warm climate allows for a
necessary rate of dehydration; the terrain is hygroscopic; crypt, rather
than ground burial, helped, and minerals and gases in the soil inhibit
natural decay. It’s estimated that the natural mummification process takes
approximately five years. However, not all bodies removed from their tombs
are well preserved, and those that are not are burned, my guide said. “These
bodies aren’t preserved at all, unlike Egypt’s mummies,” said Martinez.
In Egypt, their brains and entrails were
removed, their skin was oiled, and bodies bandaged before burial. The
Mexican mummies aren’t mummies in the strict sense, as mummies must be
prepared with oil, he said. Guanajuato’s mummies were placed behind glass
cases after a period of being displayed openly. However, visitors stole
various body parts and the mummies’ identifications, so they were placed
behind glass, my guide said. Pranks including placing cigarettes in the dead
bodies’ mouths were also played.
Remigio Leroy, a French doctor, is the
museum’s oldest mummy at almost 140 years old. The museum opened with just
his body in 1870. The most recent mummy is a 55 to 60 year old fully clothed
person who died in 1979 who’d been removed from the cemetery in 1984. While
the museum didn’t have a record of that person’s name, I was informed that
it’s available in the public records.
Since 1984, bodies exhumed from the cemetery
are no longer placed in the museum. The families of the deceased are now
responsible for the graves’ upkeep, and if they abdicate responsibility, the
bodies are cremated or placed in graves belonging to family members who have
died more recently.
The first mummies exhumed in 1870 were placed
in the cemetery’s administration offices. They were then moved to a nearby
underground crypt and displayed along passageways for visitors, who could
reach out and touch the bodies. It wasn’t until the 1960's that the museum
building was reconditioned for the specific purpose of using it as a museum
and the four exhibition halls were added.
The mummies’ social status can be determined
by the type and amount of clothing in which they were buried. Traditionally,
the deceased were laid to rest wearing their best attire, and while several
wore jackets and dresses, others owned the most rudimentary of clothing.
Several were also buried naked.
The museum houses three foreigners, two
French doctors – and a Chinese woman who’s been in the museum for 133 years.
While many French relocated to Guanajuato after Maximilian visited in the
1860's, Martinez didn’t know how or why the Chinese woman came to live and
die there. The area’s immensely rich silver mines (at one time the richest
in the world) attracted many foreigners in the 19th century, however.
Room number three, which houses 15 mummified
babies and four heads (the bodies having been destroyed by visitors) is the
museum’s most popular room. Crowds stand around and stare at the tiny
mummies, signs of lives that had been cut short long before their time. One
baby wore a yellow and green costume representing St. Joseph; another was
attired in black and white clothing depicting St. Martin de Porres, while
babies dressed in red and white and holding a heart represent the Sacred
Heart. Several still had their favorite toy or blanket beside them that had
comforted them when they were alive. Babies who died weren’t considered
infants, but “little angels,” free from all sin, and this is why they were
dressed in this particular way, according to the Mummy Museum booklet I’d
purchased in the museum store.
Photographs of the recently-departed with
their family members hang on the walls of corridor one above the mummified
bodies. It was customary in Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century to
photograph those who’d died before they were buried, Martinez said. And the
Mexican’s ambiguous relationship with death is reflected in Jose Guadalupe
Posada’s nearby drawings, depicting cheerful skeletons dancing and
street-sweeping. Posada taught Diego Riveria, one of the country’s most
Although work had begun on building a
municipal cemetery in 1853 in response to a cholera outbreak, the city’s
cemetery wasn’t officially opened until 1861 due to several major political
events. Prior to the introduction of public cemeteries, bodies were buried
in the atria of churches and convents, and in the churches themselves,
depending on the social status of the deceased. Burials in these traditional
venues were prohibited when the 1860 Reform Laws declared that church
property belonged to the nation.
Several of the mummies showed physical signs
of how they’d died. Blood traces between a 54 year old male’s ribs told of
how he was killed with a knife or gun in 1940; marks on a woman’s neck
testified to her death by a hanging suicide or homicide; while a large empty
space where a tumor had grown in a woman’s stomach was evidence of cancer.
One woman died during an unsuccessful Caesarean operation performed in 1920.
Close by, her 18 centimeter high dead baby holds the record for being the
smallest mummy in the world, according to the guide.
A very large woman was buried alive because
she suffered from catalepsy, which gives the frozen-like appearance of death
for such a time that everyone believes the person is actually dead. The
horrific accident was only discovered five years later when the tomb was
opened. Her body, which had originally been buried face upwards, had turned
over in the grave. And her arms, previously folded across her chest were now
folded near her face. Her body and facial expressions reflected some of the
horror of her fate.
Because the bodies were not embalmed, the
mummies have different facial expressions; however, most of their mouths are
wide open because after death facial muscles relax and jaws drop. Some of
the cadavers’ hair and nails had also continued to grow, thanks to their
body’s store of calcium. Many still have teeth, and their skin is dry and
Entry costs into the Museum of the Cult of
the Dead, adjacent to the Mummy Museum, is included in the price of the same
ticket. Ghoulish glass displays include a cut off finger, and a constantly
disco-like flashing scene of a head already removed by a guillotine. Someone
who’d been tortured during the Inquisition had been placed in a coffin with
huge nails that protruded into the victim’s body. A bizarrely-placed
hologram showed a dead fly under a microscopic. Ghostly music played
Approximately 6,000 people a month visit the
museum, primarily to see how people are preserved in Guanajuato, said Manuel
Gutierrez Cerda, the museum’s director, of the many tourists that visit the
historic city. “And a lot of people leave crying,” he added. It was a relief
to emerge in the warm, life-embracing Mexican sunlight. Information: The
Mummy Museum is open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Entrance
is approximately $3.50. Get there early to avoid the crowds! The museum's
address is: Pantheon Municipal, at the west end of town. Bus: Take a “Las
Momias” bus in front of the basilica or the market downtown, and the bus
stops a short distance from the museum. Phone: 4/732-0639