The Museum of Death

The old silver-mining town of Guanajuato, in central Mexico, has become famous for what must surely be one of the most popular museums in Mexico. Situated high on a hill overlooking the city, the Museo de las Momias houses one of the best collections of mummies in the world. But the big difference between these mummies and those from Egypt, for example,  is that these bodies belong to ordinary people originally buried in a nearby cemetery; their preservation was accidental and occurred through natural means.

The museum’s history reveals something of the Mexican entrepreneurial spirit and their attitudes towards death today. In 1865, the local cemetery was deemed full and the authorities decided to begin charging a burial fee. Unclaimed bodies were to be exhumed and moved (presumably cremated) in order to make room for those corpses that had relatives willing to pay for a plot. When the first remains were dug up in the same year, to the surprise of the authorities, many of the bodies had been preserved; aided by the rich mineral content of the soil and Guanajuato’s dry climate.

Those realisng that the unclaimed, mummified corpses provided an opportunity for financial gain, began to display them for public consumption. Like a fairground attraction it has lost nothing of its original appeal. As the skin dried out and tightened, jaws had unclenched, teeth had protruded and mouths fallen open to form grotesque expressions of horror adding to the spine tingling horror of the spectacle.  The venture proved hugely popular and remains highly profitable to this day.

Just a few years ago, the mummified corpses were exhibited carelessly, open to the elements; propped up against a wall in the museum. You could sniff them and those daring enough could reach out and touch them. Once again, death was being presented as a fairground attraction.After numerous fingers had poked holes in the parchment-like skin, the mummies were removed and encased in glass – although it seems that this decision was reached in order to keep them financially viable rather than to preserve their dignity.

Children as young as four are taken into the museum, giggling excitedly as they are led through the dimly lit halls.  To them, there is nothing morbid or macabre about the display. I am sure that at the same age, I would have had nightmares for years to come. There does not seem to be any moral issues at stake here. Bodies are considered worthy of display 1) if they are in relatively good condition, 2) remain unclaimed or 3) their relatives were/are unable to pay the burial fees. The fact that the identities of many of the mummies are unknown allows for myth and rumour to grow up around the unclaimed corpses and all manner or yarns are spun as to how they met their end – usually dictated by their grotesque expressions.  The museum claims that one is a German; another is listed as a French doctor – two foreigners who evidently died, alone, in a strange country. A woman from the 1920s is thought to have been buried alive after slipping into catalepsy. The final, frenzied movements of her hands are frozen above her face, apparently in a last ditch struggle to escape this gruesome death. Another body is that of a drowned man – we are asked to note the purplish tinge of his skin. The tiny bodies of babies are also included in the display (the musem boasts the smallest mummy in the world) as well the body of a pregnant woman and a murdered man – the knife wound clerly visible above his ribcage.

The stomachs of the mummies, when exposed, resemble nothing so much as empty sacks of shrivelled leather; vacant shells, devoid of life. It reminds me of one of the most terrifying aspects of death - watching as the blood drain from the body and the colour and texture of the skin slowly changes to resemble cold, pale marble. Suddenly, the departure of the soul is tangible or at least imaginable.  This fine parchment is one step further on, the stage just before the skin begins to turns to dust.

Inevitably, given our strait-laced views towards death, the Museo de las Momias experience is surreal. It is like stepping onto the set of a Hammer House of Horror film. The detail is extraordinary - in some cases, tufts of hair are still visible. Amazingly, the hunger for images of death, for most of the visitors, remains unabated. The museum has recently opened a separate room (at additional cost), called “the culture of death”. It includes a mummified corpse laid out in a coffin to resemble a vampire, and another punctured by metal stakes, some holograms of insects and fragments of finger nails.  The man in front of me snaps absolutely everything with his digital camera as if in a consumer frenzy.

Mortality is big business in Mexico. There is even a shop selling official teeshirts, jewellery and mugs, and a whole market outside dedicated to this cult of death.