Mummies and Martyrs

By Osmond, Stephen J. | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Mummies and Martyrs

Osmond, Stephen J., The World and I

Walking among the dead, laughter subsides and chatter fades away. Each corpse's last motion in the grave has been the same, its mouth dropped open in a silent, petrified scream. In this narrow, darkened hallway we look through soiled glass onto the careless indignity of death, feel its cold fingers flutter mockingly about our shoulders, and think: We come to this?

The Museo de los Momias in Guanajuato claims to be Mexico's second most popular museum, bested only by the magnificent anthropological museum in Mexico City. The two places could not be more different. Here there is no architectural splendor, no artistic magnificence, no celebration of the past. Here there is only a small and dusty facade, windowless hallways, and a cramped room or two lined with display cases. It is a quiet and disturbing reminder of a future we all face but know so little of. Thousands visit every year.

The bodies on display are the mummified remains of poor people taken from the cemetery once located in land adjoining what is now the museum. These folks died during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and were entombed in nearby crypts. People paid for their burial plots, but only the wealthy could afford permanent graves. The government levied an annual "tax" or fee for the site's upkeep on descendants or relatives. So, typically, bodies would be removed from their resting place and burned after a few years.

Around 1854, much of the cemetery was cleared. It was discovered, or at least someone thought to notice, that the corpses had been mummified and preserved. It is presumed that this is a result of the unique local characteristics of heat and aridity, but no authoritative scientific explanation of the phenomenon has ever been offered. In all more than 120 bodies were collected, and it was decided to exhibit, rather than burn, the corpses. Since that decision was made, los momias have gained international renown: A few years ago they even toured Japan.

Horrors and humors

The museum is located in a corner of a small square, high among the faintly scruffy, pastel-colored blocks of a hillside barrio. We join cheerful Mexican families and some gangly, vaguely distracted American tourists who look like hippie wanna-bes, and shuffle through the switchback line to buy tickets. Children giggle in titillated expectation of the horrors they envision, and men swagger and joke a little loudly to show their unconcern. Finally we enter.

The corridor seems to burrow into the hillside itself. The mummies lie on shelves in glass cabinets, strangely vulnerable as we intrude on their privacy. Most are naked, their wrinkled gray-brown skin stretched across withered limbs. Some have wisps of hair, features, faint signs of the person that once was. They are familiar yet scarcely seem human. Everyone who passes falls into silent reverie. A child's fingers press the glass as she pulls back in wide-eyed fascination. A swarthy, stocky man in blue-checked shirt and cowboy hat, gruffly jocular a moment ago, retreats to the far wall in wary contemplation. A gringo snaps photos.

The smallest mummy is of a child, stillborn when its mother died. The tiny baby, mouth and eyes wide and vacant in the surprise of death, draws a crowd of kids and moms who point and whisper at the tragedy. There are quite a few dead children on display, but perhaps the most startling exhibit of all is in a nearby glass case. A female mummy, its body twisted in agony, stands with hands clasped and raised as if in desperate prayer. It seems to be the remains of someone buried alive, by mistake--perhaps victim of an epileptic fit or coma mistaken for death--who awoke trapped in the horror of the grave.

Leaving the museum and stepping back into the hot sunlight, I am immediately met by vendors proffering enormous candy suckers--replicas of the mummies-wrapped in clear cellophane. I refuse. The thought of munching on such a thing is ghoulish enough, but they also look sugary enough to give an elephant a heart attack. …

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