February 8, 2011

The Mummies of Guanajuato

Museum of the MummiesFor those who like a taste of the macabre in their travels, then it doesn't get more weird and wonderful than El Museo De Las Momias. The Museum of the Mummies is based in Guanajuato and tourists have been paying to see its exhibits since 1900.

The writer, Ray Bradbury, was so affected by his visit that he wrote the short story, 'The Next in Line', almost as soon as he left. The British singer, Toyah Wilcox, composed 'Mummies' in homage to the site. German movie director, Werner Herzog, took photographs of the exhibits, to use in the opening sequence of 'Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht'. While the 1970s saw a whole spate of films pitting Mexican wrestlers, like Santo, against the Mummies displayed in this museum.

Mummies of Guanajuato


The mummies were naturally formed. No embalming fluids have gone anywhere near them, yet they are real corpses. The chemical composition of the ground beneath the museum prevented their decay. This was a fact which was only discovered by an exploitative quirk of law.

In 1833, an 'Asiatic' cholera epidemic swept through the Americas (and much of the rest of the world). The people of Guanajuato were particularly hard hit, with 3000 dead by the end of the outbreak. Amongst the famous names of the time dying there was Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras, the painter and architect. The epidemic was so swift and virulent, that bodies were quickly interred, without due process of a wake and lengthy funeral. Everyone was so scared that the cholera, that had killed them, would spread even faster and further without prompt action. As a result, many were accidentally buried alive.

Mummies of Guanajuato


This gruesome detail was only made apparent in the decades after the great epidemic of 1833. Local magistrates placed a tax on the dead, payable by the living. If the families and friends could not, or would not, produce their annual fees, then the their departed lost the right to rest in the municipal graveyard. The law came into being in 1865, a generation after the epidemic. It should be noted that whole families were wiped out in 1833. For the poor particularly, there were many unwilling to pay for strangers and distant relatives. Therefore, it was mostly the cholera victims who were dug up. 2% of them were mummies.

They were of both sexes and all ages. The youngest was a mere fetus, killed inside the womb of his choleric mother, and perfectly preserved. Ignacia AguilarMany still had clothing clad around them, without any sign that the fabric was fading. Disturbingly, some had faces caught in the act of screaming, but this was an illusion. Death relaxed their muscles and so the jaw sagged.

Others, like Ignacia Aguilar, held no doubt that they had been alive in their coffin. She had been buried on her back, with her arms crossed over her chest. The records showed that she had a history of catalepsy; a condition which can make the sufferer appear dead.

When Ignacia was uncovered, she was face down with her back bucked, as if trying to lift the lid to the end. Her hands were clasped together, as if she had been praying. Her mouth was biting down on one arm, with traces of blood about her teeth. Her back, arm and forehead were all scratched.

News spread fast. The skeletal remains could be stashed away until someone was willing to pay for their reburial; but the mummies were harder to store. They ended up propped in a large tomb on the site. People wished to see them. So many people, in fact, that the cemetery's workers saw the chance for a quick buck here. They began charging for a peep into the tomb.

Mummies of Guanajuato


108 mummies were taken from the cemetery, including a prominent doctor, Remigio Leroy. These days, it's illegal to disinter more bodies, but those already out have been given their own museum. Their exhibition is undertaken more sensitively; while the mummies themselves are often the subject of academic studies. Scientists, especially those in the field of forensics, have used them to advantage their knowledge of decomposition; while humanities students write theses on the reactions of the living to the dead.

To learn more, please visit the museum's website: El Museo De Las Momias de Guanajuato. In the meantime, here is that particularly horror-laden opening from 'Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht'.

3 comments:

  1. did you relay go there weren't you scared.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It can feel a little creepy, but not precisely scary. It certainly does make you feel very thoughtful about life and death.

    ReplyDelete
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