Perhaps the most unusual museum in Mexico is The Museo de las Momias in Guanajuato, the capital in the state of the same name. This former silver mining town with stunning examples of baroque and neoclassical architecture is a world heritage site. However, the museum here has nothing to do with the beauty found above ground. The fascinating origin of Las Momias, dates back to the mid 1800s, 1833 to be precise. A cholera epidemic was sweeping through the area, and the town, in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly disease, quickly buried those who had succumbed to the illness. The rapid burials may have led to at least one person accidentally being buried alive. Ignacia Aquilar may have suffered this fate. She had a rare disease that on occasion made her heart beat so faint, it was perceived to have stopped. Thinking she had died, poor Ignacia was buried. But was she still alive?
The question of her demise was only discovered when she and others were disinterred for failure by the relatives of the dead to pay an annual fee to keep the body at its resting place. If relatives were unable or unwilling the pay the tax, their relative’s corpse was pulled up from its resting spot in the cemetery.
As more and more bodies were pulled, it became apparent that quite a number of them had been naturally mummified. The mummified bodies were stored, standing, lying, and leaning, in a storage area of the cemetery, certainly creepy for any new employees. Word spread and many visited the cemetery’s ossuary building clandestinely.
However, one employee was enterprising and decided the sight was sufficiently shocking to start charging a few pesos for the experience, and the museum had its start.
Back to Ignacia.
The story goes that when she was uncovered, she was found face down, and biting her arm. There was a large amount of blood in her mouth as well. That discovery fuelled the rumor mill, that many of these corpses had met similar fate, as they all exhibited distorted body poses and horrific facial expressions. It is easy to imagine they had been in agony after their horrifying discovery of being buried alive. The truth is that this is how most of us look post mortem. Our muscles pull and twist the body and face as the dying process unfolds, and keeping our lips together becomes almost impossible. Natural releasing gases reshape the corpse once the rigor mortis is over.
The museum’s collection of some 111 corpses, all exhumed between 1885 and 1989, include the world’s smallest mummified corpse, a fetus no larger than a loaf of bread, whose ill mother died giving birth. Some corpse still retain pieces of fabric from the clothing they were buried in. A surprising number are still wearing their socks.
The reason the bodies became perfectly mummified is the dry climate, which provided, which provided arid crypts; the high altitude comes into play as well. The weather is conducive to mummification, which requires two things to occur – the liquefaction of the fat and the drying of the body tissue. This site and Encarnación de Díaz in Jalisco are the two known locations where the mummification process occurs naturally in Mexico. The museum sits on the site of the original cemetery, not surprisingly on a high hill over looking the city.
Vendors set up their stalls in the parking lot selling clear taffy candies twisted to resemble the mummies. Tours of school children and senior citizens roll through every few minutes. It is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Mexico. While many would cringe at the thought of parading small children past a macabre exhibit of remains that perhaps deserve another burial, it is a quintessential example of this country’s celebration of and obsession with death.
Recently, leading forensic anthropologists examined the mummies using X-rays and endoscopy. They have determined the age of the mummies by measuring the arm and leg bones. They have determined the fetus to be the world’s youngest mummy at 24 weeks old. What has raised curiosity is that in the case of the two infant mummies, both had been embalmed. This puzzled scientists as to whether this embalming was a step to preserve the body longer, as is the practice in other parts of the world. Infant and fetal corpses decompose rapidly, so it is believed the embalming would have helped preserve the small bodies for these death rituals.
The scientists were told that in rural Mexico now, as in the past, infants who die are dressed in special outfits, representing their young souls’ freedom from sin. The baby girls are in white angelic outfits often with wings, and the infant boys in little outfits, the color of the clothing corresponding to the Saint that represents the month in which the infant died. The dressed infants are on display for a brief time and photographed alone, or with their families as if they were still alive.
The scientists have discovered that, beyond Hispanic origins in the museum, several mummies are from Asian descent, and several suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, extreme anemia and tuberculosis. They also gave Ignacia a closer look, and admit finding her face down could corroborate the rumor that she was buried alive and was using her back to try and push open the coffin lid. The team is returning to take fingernail scrapings to see if there is any material under her nails that match the coffin she was buried in.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at