I have to admit, today’s post is about a museum that invokes a mixture of emotions. Morbid, sad, death, emotional, moribund, fascinating, curious! Depending on who you are as a person, you might either be inquisitive and fascinated by the subject of this museum or repelled and saddened by it. When I first came across this museum, my curiosity was raised and I wished to explore it further. The rest of the family was uncertain at first but in the end, curiosity got the better of us all and we went to see it, morbid or not!
As the name suggests, the Museo de las Momias is dedicated to naturally mummified bodies of residents who once lived in Guanajuato. Their bodies were buried in the crypts above ground at the Municipal Pantheon of Santa Paula, the cemetery across the street from the museum. Then, in 1870, the local government passed a law mandating that families pay a “burial tax” to ensure their loved ones remained perpetually buried in this cemetery. Many did, but some couldn’t. Their loved ones’ bodies were then disinterred from the crypts and moved to a different building. The same happened to bodies who did not have any known family members in the area. Some of the exhumed bodies were claimed, the ones left behind are the ones in the museum. And therein lies the question, is it humane to have them on display?
The disinterment happened over many years from 1870 to 1958. The exhumation process revealed that the bodies had all been naturally mummified. Mummification involves removing all moisture from a body so that it becomes dry and thus, less prone to decay. It is thought that the above-ground crypts in which they had been placed allowed rapid moisture release into the crypt thus stopping the process of decomposition.
Naturally, this evoked curiosity and fascination among locals in the area. Soon after the initial exhumation, they began to pay money to see the mummified bodies. Eventually, the mummies were moved to the museum in 1969.
The mummies belong to humans of all ages, from a mummified fetus to infants to children and adults. A team of forensic anthropologists have determined the fetal age to be about 24 weeks and the infant at one year. Both had been embalmed before their burial, probably to allow time to perform all the necessary rituals. The team also found evidence of diseases like tuberculosis, anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few. The team has been able to determine that these people died between 1850 and 1950, by carbon-dating methods. I read elsewhere that many of the mummified bodies belonged to people who died in a cholera epidemic that plagued the area.
Guanajuato is a silver mining town and a busy one at that. We spent a lot of time driving around, trying to find a place to park. Eventually, Uriel decided to drive to the museum first. He dropped us off along a side street and we walked down to the museum parking lot. There were long lines for tickets at the time of our visit. Tickets in hand, we stood in line for nearly half an hour to enter the museum for a guided tour.
The mummies were displayed in glass cases. With focused lighting on them and muted for the visitors. Some of the cases had adequate signage and information. Many did not. We followed the guide but the crowd was huge and soon we could not get near enough to hear him well. Besides, he spoke in rapid Spanish and we could not understand him well enough.
One of the most well-known mummies is that of the French physician, Dr. Remigio Leroy. He died during the cholera outbreak and was left without any family member to pay the burial tax. He was the first body to be exhumed and is said to have scared away the gravediggers.
La China or the “China girl” is another mummy that is well preserved. She lay in her original coffin with her Oriental features and clothes that marked her as such. At the time of her potential death, many Asian immigrants from China, Korea, and Japan were migrating to Mexico.
The lighting and the overall tone in the museum was somber. Pensive and evocative are words that come to mind. Instead of being gruesome, to me, the museum spoke of reverence to the dead. It also spoke of embracing death as much as one should embrace life. While these bodies may have been abandoned in death, they certainly were not alone. The mummies not only had each other for company but also the multitude of people who visit them every single day. For a few minutes of our lives, we the living, shared time, space and thought with those who had gone before us.
Death is the natural end to all life. These well-preserved bodies looked so similar to each other in death that one could barely separate a man from a woman or a physician from a laborer. To me, it drove home the point that rich or poor, young or old, red or blue, black, white, brown or any other color, death deals us all the same hand. It is, indeed, the great leveler. And thus, it behooves all of us to do our very best while alive, to live with passion and vigor, with kindness and compassion, with empathy and caring, and without prejudice or bigotry.
“Man must open himself to death if he wants to open himself to life.
The cult of life is also the cult of death.
A civilization that denies death, ends up denying life. “
Octavio Paz (From the Museo de las Momias website)