This article is from the October 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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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 July 2001 issue of Mexico File, as well as articles on Talavera pottery for the August/September 2001 issue and on baby turtles for the April 2002 issue.

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 Martinez.

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 years ago.

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 famous artists.

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 taught.

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 continuously.

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