In Guanajuato, The Dead Don't Always Stay Buried. Sometimes, They End Up In A Museum.

Brilliance | Dec. 09, 2017

This has got to be a top contender for most morbid museum in the world. Museo de las Momias (The Mummy Museum) in Guanajuato, Mexico, is home to the world's largest collection of naturally formed mummies—the bodies of 111 locals, naturally preserved thanks to the unusual soil conditions. But what are all of these bodies doing in an underground museum instead of being buried in the cemetery that's immediately overhead? It's a story that's equal parts fascinating and sad.

Evicted From The Ground

In 1865, Guanajuato had a problem. Due to the ongoing cholera epidemic, its cemeteries were becoming overcrowded, and the cost of upkeep was rising by the day. So they instituted a policy that might seem cruel today. Citizens with a family member in the cemetery could either pay a vast amount of money all at once, or pay a much smaller "burial tax" every year. Otherwise, their loved ones would be disinterred and the space opened up for a paying customer. The first of these unfortunates whose family wasn't able to cover the fee was Dr. Remigio Leroy, and when they dug him up in June, 1865, they found his body was remarkably well preserved.

More bodies followed, mostly those of the poor, and virtually all of them were in much better condition than they had any right to be. The best preserved among them were stored in an ossuary beneath the cemetery, in case the families scraped together enough money for another burial. But as the decades wore on, the macabre collection grew, and by the beginning of the 20th century, cemetery workers had begun allowing visitors in to see them for a few pesos.

The Mummies In Residence

These days, hardly any of the names of the deceased have survived. A few notable characters remain, however. You can still visit Dr. Leroy in his glass case, and even admire his long, bushy sideburns. Another resident of the museum is Ignacia Aguilar, who was said to have been buried alive. But probably the most famous mummy in the museum never had a name at all. Called "the world's smallest mummy," this infant was born via cesarean section, but neither it nor the mother survived. Now parent and child are interred forever in the same room of the museum, and like most of the other mummies, they can be seen in the clothes that they were buried in.

A Second Life As A Cultural Touchstone

The burial tax ended in 1958, and the ossuary was transformed into an official museum about 10 years later. Since then, the mummies have become an iconic part of Guanajuato, driving tourism and even popping up in unexpected places—the 1970 action movie El Santo Vs. The Mummies Of Guanajuato, for example. Ray Bradbury visited the mummies before the museum had been made official, and was immediately inspired to write a story about it. Later, he had this to say: "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." We get it Ray. But we also kinda can't wait to go see them for ourselves.

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