Death is both spectre and spectacle in Mexico.
Death in all its grim, gritty and violent essentialism is a reality in many people’s every day lives in Mexico; rocketing murder rates, forced disappearances and feminicides are widely reported in national and international media. Death the spectre accompanies many people in their day-to-day lives.
However, as one author puts it, ‘Mexico is known for its cultural braiding of life and death.’ Beyond cold and difficult facts, Mexicans also retain a close and amiable relationship with death, one that means it forms a part of every day life in a more spiritual and creative way. Balistreri states that, ‘There is a belief in Mexico that a person should fear life more than death, due to the relative difficulty of life versus the ease of death (Garciagodoy 1998:175)’ I touched on some of this in my previous posts here and here, and there is SO much more I could say. For now though, I’m going to look at how actual dead bodies are used as cultural spectacle, by focusing on two museums and a procession linked to one of them, all in the state of Guanajuato.
Years ago I saw a documentary (that I can’t for the life of me find online now) that fascinated me, and I added another bullet point on my mental list – alongside MANY other things – of stuff I’d love to see in the world but will probably never be able to. So when I was visiting Guanajuato for a day earlier this year I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a sign that meant my documentary dream had come true. I’d found the place where you can get up close to the world’s largest collection of naturally mummified bodies; the Museo de las Momias.
People have been paying to see the mummies in Guanjuato since around 1875, although the formal museum didn’t open until much later. Some historians suggest that as Mexico fought for independence, museums, ‘became essential for the political development of a new Mexican national identity. It would seem that Mexican museums were essentially created as state projects and were considered public-service institutions from the beginning (Florescano 1990:1244).’ Indeed, given Mexico’s unique relationship with death, it is fitting that they would designate the mummified bodies as cultural spectacle and officially, publically put them on display. The state of Guanajuato considers the mummies a key part of their regional identity and patrimony, and they have been part of national folklore and popular culture since the 19th century.
Just because the mummies are in Mexico, it doesn’t mean that only Mexicans are fascinated with visiting them. These days, a phenomenon called ‘dark tourism’ is on the rise, in which people travel with the intention of seeking out the creepy, unusual or morbid. According to Balistreri;
‘People are fascinated with death through a combination of respect, reverence, morbid curiosity, and superstition (Stone 2006:147)….The fact that exhibitions featuring death and human remains continue to be in existence, and seem to be growing in popularity, speaks to the contemporary, paradoxical fascination with and fear of death as well as an “intense desire for realism and authenticity” (Linke 2005:13), and the desire to understand one’s own mortality and death (Leiberich et al. 2006:569)’
There are various explanations as to how bodies become naturally mummified in Guanajuato, although the most recent is that it is to do with the dryness of the air…and I presume various other more complex factors. Previously, people thought it was to do with minerals in the soil, but all of the mummies recovered in the cemetery in Guanajuato city came from over ground crypts. Slightly harder to explain is why only some bodies become mummified – only one in ten of those exhumed in the 19th century when the mummies were first discovered had succumbed to this phenomenon.
The result is captivating and some might say gruesome. The author Ray Bradbury was left traumatised after his visit to the museum, although it did inspire him to write his short story The Next In Line. Others are a little less impressed by the mummies; one reviewer has said; ‘The truth is seeing them is somewhat risqué, but exciting if you’re under 15 years old.’
Although I’m 30, I found the museum more inspiring and exciting than that reviewer! I would say it’s eerie rather than gruesome. It is hard to believe that the mummies are real, which takes away a little of the intensity. Their skin is paper-like and those that still have hair have synthetic looking tufts sprouting from various body parts, so that call to mind poor quality and unloved mannequins.
For me the most interesting thing about the mummies’ appearance was to imagine how they would have impacted those who first pulled them out of their tombs in the late 19th century, when a newly introduced burial tax meant that those who couldn’t afford to pay the new fees had their loved ones’ remains excavated and moved to common graves. Their bodies and facial expressions are twisted and contorted, mouths open, hands clasped, eyeballs popping out of sockets. Not at all like the peaceful expression you may see on a deceased body in an open-casket wake, after make up and other techniques have been applied to give an impression of serenity. I imagined god-fearing gravediggers coming face-to-face with these twisted corpses. It must have looked like they were paralysed with fear on their way to some horrible underworld, adding fuel to religious beliefs of the day. Another creepy idea that is still popular in some sections of society today is that the mummies were people who were buried alive. Guanajuato was the epicentre of a plague in the late 19th century that paralysed its victims, giving the impression that they were dead and causing their burial. Later of course they would wake up underground and twist, turn, fight and scream in terror.
Each mummy in the collection has its accompanying story which supposedly tells us who they were and how they lived and died. Recently though, the director of the museum has said the stories are false, and that the lives of the mummies deserve proper investigation. The mummies in the museum date from the 19th century, but the mummification phenomenon still exists. In 2017, another 210 mummies were discovered when authorities began to undertake renovation of the cemetery. However, their families are less keen for their loved ones to be used as spectacle, and have not agreed for them to be displayed publicly.
There are also mummies on display in Celaya, another town in the state of Guanajuato, and their ‘lives’ are much more entwined with those of contemporary residents of Celaya, because they were discovered more recently.
In the 1970s, local authorities called families to inform them that the bodies of their deceased loved ones had been found mummified, when they were exhumed at the instruction of the administrator of the main cemetery, the Panteón Municipal Norte, due to requirements to move bodies after five years if charges had not been paid.
The mummies were stored in cemetery cellars and finally put on display in Celaya’s mummy museum in 2014, apparently to honour and respect them, especially since many of the deceased had lived impoverished and difficult lives. Since then another 13 mummies have been discovered but their families won’t donate them to the museum, instead preferring to sell them or re-bury them.
Every November, residents of Celaya mark another occasion in which bodies were exhumed and moved from one place to another. The Paseo de las Luminarias (The Walk of Lights) happens every year to recreate and remember the night in 1890 when, due to a change in national law, bodies were exhumed from private tombs and crypts and moved to the Panteón Municipal Norte. The move happened in the middle of the night, so as to cause as little fear and upset as possible, and residents aided those working on carrying the bodies by placing small fires along the way to the cemetery to help them see. Today residents of Celaya honour that night by dressing up as Calaveras and Catrinas and go out with lights to march to the main cemetery.
Residents who want to exhume the bodies of loved ones from family crypts today in the state of Guanajuato can pay about 780 MXN (£31) and fill out some paperwork that takes about ten minutes.
- Balistreri, Amanda (2014) Putting the Dead on Display: an Exploration of Visitor Perceptions and Motivations Regarding Preserved Human Remains in Museums with Particular Emphasis on the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato and Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life
- Bitto, Roberto (2016) The Mummies of Guanajuato: Fact and Fiction Mexico Unexplained available at http://mexicounexplained.com/mummies-guanajuato-fact-fiction/
- Gisleson, Anne (2011) Land of the Dead. The Atlantic available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/12/land-of-the-dead/308731/
- García Barcala, Jesús (2017) ¿De dónde salieron las Momias de Guanajuato? Ciencia Histórica available at http://www.cienciahistorica.com/2017/06/18/donde-salieron-las-momias-de-guanajuato/
- Guardiola, Andres (2017) Encuentran 210 momias en Guanajuato Excelsior available at http://www.excelsior.com.mx/nacional/2017/01/05/1137968
- Navarro, Ernesto J (2016) Las momias de Guanajuato: ¿qué hay detrás del tenebroso mito? Russia Today available at https://actualidad.rt.com/ciencias/208620-momias-guanajuato-atractivo-cultural-mexico
- Reyes, Catalina (2017) Son falsas las historias de las momias Periódico Correo available at https://periodicocorreo.com.mx/son-falsas-las-historias-de-las-momias-del-museo-directora/
- Staff writer (2014) Historias del Museo de Momias de Celaya Disfruta Hoy Celaya available at http://disfrutahoycelaya.mx/historias-del-museo-de-momias-de-celaya/
- Staff Writer (2013) Panteón Museo de Momias de Celaya, Gto, México Taringa! Available at https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/15973791/Panteon-Museo-de-Momias-de-Celaya-Gto-Mexico.html
- Staff Writer (2018) Paseo de las Luminarias Celaya En Celaya available at https://encelaya.com.mx/paseo-de-las-luminarias-celaya/
 Balisteri, p31
 Balisteri, p20
 Balistreri, p35
 In 1859 the president Benito Juárez created the Ley Secularización de Cementerios, the law to secularise cemeteries. This prohibited the burial of bodies in the crypts of temples and monasteries. https://encelaya.com.mx/paseo-de-las-luminarias-celaya/