The Mummies of Guanajuato Museum displays dozens of naturally-preserved bodies showing the excruciating pain they suffered as a result of cholera.
“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.”
Ray Bradbury (The Stories of Ray Bradbury, 1980)
Guanajuato isn’t only one of Mexico’s most important colonial towns, it’s also a beautiful place where basically anyone can find something to be amazed by. With its picturesque stone-paved streets, its colorful colonial buildings, and the dozens of little shops to try the traditional flavors of Mexico, it’s definitely a perfect spot to take some great photos for your Instagram. That is, unless you’re a bit more into gore and the macabre. In that case, let me tell you that this town has a lot to offer.
As you can get from the very straightforward quote by none other than Ray Bradbury, there’s a huge museum in the historic town of Guanajuato where you can see dozens of mummies on display, but if that isn't morbid enough for you, the faces and the positions of these bodies will do the trick. The mummies alone are pretty scary, but then there's also all the tourism that surrounds them. You can find mummy-shaped hard candy all over town, dolls, and even shirts with them, but perhaps the most shocking part of all (of course, besides the actual mummies) is learning the story behind them.
This is how the story goes. For about 11 years, between 1826 and 1837, there was a global pandemic of cholera that went all the way from India, to western Asia, Europe, and America. Cholera spread through Mexico around 1833, and as soon as the first cases appeared in the country, it became one of the worst health crises since the pandemics brought by the Spaniards during the Conquest. Towns in every corner of the country had dozens, hundreds, and thousands of dead, and Guanajuato, in the center of the country, wasn’t the exception.
It’s believed that since cholera spread so fast, there were even cases where people were buried alive, which is why most of the mummies have expressions of excruciating pain. Though it could be possible, a better explanation could be related to the symptoms of the disease, which include muscular cramps due to the loss of minerals and ions proper of dehydration. Anyway, the cemetery of Guanajuato was soon filled with the bodies of the victims of the pandemic. However, this wasn’t the worst part. By 1866, authorities of the local government realized that their cemetery was already full. So, their great idea was to charge people a fee (known as the burial tax that ended until the 1950s) to keep the deceased in their tombs. Naturally, not everybody was allowed to pay for that fee and as a consequence, more than a hundred bodies were disinterred.
The first body, which is one of the main attractions of the museum, is that of Dr. Remigio Leroy. What was the surprise? Although he had been buried many decades before, his body was amazingly well-preserved. The elements of the soil in the cemetery had played an important role in the decomposition of the bodies, turning them into natural mummies. As they kept digging out those who couldn’t afford the burial tax, they realized Leroy wasn’t a unique case, but that all the bodies had gone through that treatment. So, what to do with all these bodies? Return them to their families? Not really. They placed them all in an underground ossuary on the premises of the cemetery to keep them while families could gather the money to pay the fee. Of course, this didn’t really happen.
Decades passed and most of the mummies stored hadn’t been claimed. So, by the early twentieth century, looking for an extra income, workers of the cemetery started charging visitors a small fee to see the stored mummies. Needless to say, word got out, and suddenly tons of people appeared at the cemetery wanting to see the famous mummified bodies: they had discovered a gold mine. In the subsequent decades, the ossuary was turned into a museum and the bodies were displayed in cabinets and halls. It became, and still is, one of the most popular spots in this highly touristic Mexican town.
However, this isn’t the only place in Mexico where you can see real mummies. There’s a small town in Jalisco that also has a small museum displaying mummies found in its cemetery, and in the south of Mexico City, in the colonial neighborhood of San Ángel, there’s an old convent that also has some of these naturally preserved bodies, though none of these are as shocking as the one in Guanajuato. The mummies there have become part of our popular culture, appearing in movies and TV shows (including some targeted to children), songs, books, and many other cultural expressions, as well as the candy that was mentioned before. Personally, I think that yes, it’s true that as Mexicans we do embrace and understand death in a different way that other people find morbid and scary, but let me tell you that these mummies are still too much for the faint-hearted like me.
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