Guanajuato, Mexico: Museum of Mummies (and More)

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “In the United States the word death burns the lips, but the Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite playthings and his most steadfast love.”

As Paz suggests, death is not a subject that most Americans care to talk about or even think about. That makes the fascination with death in Mexico all the more striking and fascinating. It has its origin in ancient Mexico, when death was often considered the ultimate experience of life. Mexico’s fascination with the common adventure we will all one day embark on is exemplified by the national festivities surrounding one of their most popular holidays, the Day of the Dead. It also manifests in a distinctly unique museum in Guanajuato, the Museo de las Momias (Museum of the Mummies.)

The location of this rather macabre museum in the lovely hillside town of Guanajuato has a sense of irony to it. This gorgeous colonial town is one of the most beautiful, lively communities in Mexico.

It was one of the first areas in Mexico occupied by the Spanish because of its wealthy silver mines, which are still among the best-producing mines in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Guanajuato is also one of Mexico’s most important university and cultural cities. It’s the birthplace of Diego Rivera and, with its squares and plazas, it has perhaps the most European feel of any city in Mexico.

One would not readily associate Guanajuato with death, but such is its fate. A combination of circumstances in this region provided conditions for a museum of the dead:

The dry climate and conditions of the soil slow the process of the decomposition of the bodies. Additionally, limited space near Guanajuato for graveyards resulted in an onerous grave tax, presenting many families with a financial burden they could not meet. In lieu of paying the tax, gravesites were often rented by families – but, if this “storage fee” could not be met, the bodies were often exhumed. This practice has been abolished, but for over a hundred years, a few of these exhumed bodies every year were mummified and subsequently displayed for public view.

As I entered the Museo de las Momias, I was swept up by a grotesque fascination and curiosity as to the stories behind these mummies. Who were these people? What was their fate?

The first mummy exhibited was Dr. Remigio Leroy from France, in 1865. He had no family or friends locally to pay the tax. After five years of nonpayment, his body was dug up. It was then discovered that his remains had been mummified.

The subsequent bodies exhibited were exhumed between 1865 and 1985. About 118 of these are still displayed in the museum. Some are still wearing full suits of tattered clothes from their era. One withered exhibit is clothed in an official-looking jacket. Several of the mummies have their mouths open as if letting out a horrific scream. Some appear to have been buried alive. The most poignant exhibits are the remains of several infants, including one with a bonnet. It was believed that the souls of these “little angels” would fly straight to heaven.

Almost as fascinating as the mummies themselves was the presence of several families with small children. Mexicans view death as a natural progression and extension of life, not an ending. It is part of the circle of life and is to be celebrated. In Mexican culture, it is believed children should not be shielded from such a natural and inevitable aspect of existence.

It’s important to recognize this philosophy in understanding the Museum of Mummies. This is not a place for everyone, but it does encourage one to reflect upon one’s mortality. That seems to me a positive outcome.

It is one of only two mummy museums in the world (The other is in Palermo, Italy – go ahead, book your reservations for both). Sugar skulls are on hand for purchase afterward as souvenirs.

One little-known tidbit: Ray Bradbury once wrote a book, now out of print, titled The Mummies of Guanajuato.

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