Evicted from a Cemetery and into a Museum: The Multitude of Mummies of Guanajuato
The mummies of Guanajuato are a group of naturally preserved bodies that were found in Guanajuato, a city in central Mexico. The story of these mummies dates back to 1833, when the city was hit by an outbreak of cholera. Thirty years after the outbreak, the city’s cemetery was reaching its full capacity, and some of the corpses were dug up so as to make room for newer ones. It was during this time that the corpses were discovered to have been mummified as a result of the extremely dry conditions of the soil. More and more of these mummies were dug up, and eventually the place where the mummies were stored became the Museo de las Momias, meaning ‘The Mummies’ Museum’.
Taxes or Eviction
During the 1860s, the city of Guanajuato was facing a problem – the city’s cemetery was reaching its capacity. Thus, it was decided that a grave tax be imposed on the relatives of those buried within it. This tax was collected from 1865 until 1958, and it cost either a one-time fee of 170 pesos, or 50 pesos a year for three years. By paying the tax, the dead would be left in peace. Failure to do so, on the other hand, resulted in the ‘eviction’ of the dead from their final resting place.
Unfortunately, the majority of people either could not or chose to not pay the tax. As a result of this, 90% of the graves were disinterred over time. The first corpse to have been ‘evicted’ apparently belonged to a French doctor by the name of Remigio Leroy. As the doctor was a foreigner who died whilst visiting Guanajuato, it is likely that his relatives were not contacted and informed about the grave tax. Hence, he became the first to be removed from the cemetery.
A mummy found in the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, Mexico. (Public Domain)
To everybody’s astonishment, when his body was dug up on June 9, 1865, it was found that he was quite well preserved. As more mummies were unearthed, the new question that the city faced was what to do with the mummies that were dug up. It was thus decided that the mummies be kept in an ossuary located under the grounds of the cemetery. In the event that their relatives decided to pay the tax, they would be able to reclaim their loved ones for reburial. It seems that few, if any, paid the tax, and soon, the ossuary became filled with mummies.
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Some of the mummies in the museum in Guanajuato. (CC BY SA 4.0)
News of this ‘mummy warehouse’ soon spread, and people were drawn to the cemetery in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the morbid contents of the ossuary. The cemetery workers saw this as an opportunity to make some extra income, and began charging people a small amount money in exchange for entry into the ossuary. Thus, the Mummies’ Museum came into being. Although the grave tax was abolished and the practice of disinterring dead bodies was banned in 1958, the mummies of Guanajuato remained as a part of the new museum.
A Famous Tourist Site
In 1970, a Mexican horror film called Santo Versus the Mummies of Guanajuato was released. In the film, a luchador by the name of Santo does battle with the mummies of Guanajuato, which were magically brought back to life. As a result of this film, the museum was able to solidify its place in Mexican tourism.
Attitudes towards the mummies have shifted over the years. Initially treated as cemetery tenants whose relatives did not pay for their graves, the mummies were then seen as objects of curiosity by the public. However, more respect has been accorded to these mummies over time.
For instance, for many years, the mummies were just propped against the walls of the ossuary for the living to view. Now, however, more official glass cases are used to house them. Scientific studies have also been conducted on some of the mummies in recent times in an effort to learn more about these individuals.
The mummy of a baby in the museum. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Top image: Several of the mummies in the Mummies’ Museum, Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo source: Russ Bowling/ CC BY 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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