Warning!!! This post contains graphic photos of actual mummified people. Read on at your own risk.
Guanajuato is a beautiful colonial city in the western highlands of Mexico. It’s the quieter and more laid back alternative to its way more popular neighbor, San Miguel de Allende. There are beautiful buildings, lovely little callejons that wind up into the hills, beautiful parks and cafes, and quite a few myths and legends – from haunted houses to stories of the murderous end to Guanajuato’s very own Romeo and Juliet romance. But the creepiest story in the city can be found at El Museo de las Momias – the Mummy Museum
Guanajuato is a silver mining town and in the 19th century it was booming. By 1858, the city cemetery was running out of places to inter or bury the dead. So they instituted an Internment Tax. Family members of the deceased had to pay a fee to keep their relatives interred. If they failed to pay the tax for five years, the bodies of their relatives would be exhumed and cremated, so that the crypt could be reused.
In 1865, cemetery workers went to exhume the first body – that of Dr. Remigio Leroy, a French doctor. He didn’t have any family in the area, so was the first to be removed from his crypt. The cemetery workers were shocked to discover that his body had not decomposed, but was instead mummified.
Over the course of 100 years, more and more mummies were found (about 2% of the bodies exhumed were mummified). As more mummies began to be removed from crypts, cemetery workers stored them in an ossuary below the cemetery. Rumors spread throughout the area, and people began to secretly visit the mummies – paying off cemetery workers to give them access. Many locals believed that the mummification was the result of divine retribution for acts committed while alive. Eventually, the city set up a museum close to the cemetery so that people could come and see the famous mummies of Guanajuato.
The Mummies of Guanajuato are an anomaly. They weren’t supposed to be mummified. Scientists believe the natural mummification in Guanajuato happens due to a combination of the altitude, a very dry climate, that the wood of the coffins absorbs moisture, and that the sealed cement crypts protect the bodies from bacteria and insects. And the process happens quickly here. Some of these bodies were mummified in 5-7 years.
Today, the museum is located below the cemetery where all these mummies were found. You enter into a darkened hallway and when you turn a corner, out of the darkness, dimly lit glass cages emerge, full of mummies leaned up against the walls.
From there, the horror continues as you walk past mummy after mummy. Because these people weren’t supposed to be mummified – and therefore were not properly prepared – they look a lot more gruesome than your average mummy. Gaping mouths due to the hardening of the tongue and slackening of jaw muscles after death. As the fluids evaporated, the skin became loose as well, giving them the appearance that they’ve lost a huge amount of weight, which I guess they have. Many of them still have hair and their clothing has survived as well. They’re all ages, from a fetus who died when his/her mother did to people who were in their 70’s.
The mummies of Guanajuato have played a big part in Mexican pop culture since the mid 20th century. In 1970, Santo, the famous luchador, starred in a movie, Santo vs Las Momias de Guanajuato, in which the mummies come to life and he must battle them. You can even watch the whole movie on YouTube.
Ray Bradbury visited the mummies in 1945, and was so shaken by his experience that he immediately penned a short story, “The Next in Line,” about the mummies and his experience there.
The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.
La Leyenda de las Momias de Guanajuato is an animated movie that came out several years ago, in which kids have to battle the mummies, who have come back to life.
Why did the city of Guanajuato create a museum for these mummies? And why is it such a popular attraction, with as many as 4,000 visits a week? Because it’s freaking scary! And once you’re inside, you just can’t stop looking.
WARNING: The rest of this post is photos of mummies. Read on at your own risk.