Mummies are real — that is, mummies aren't just products of horror flicks and mysterious ancient burial rites. You can see real mummies from the very near past in Guanajuato, Mexico's Museo de Momias.
The mummy above was a mother, and the tiny mummy beside her was her unborn child...
Guanajuato's First Mummy Found in 1865
Dr. Remigio Leroy, whose mummified remains are pictured here in Guanajuato's Museum of Mummies, was the first mummy found in Guanajuato in 1865, and the fact of his mummification was discovered quite by accident. The city had decided to commence exhuming bodies from Santa Paula Municipal Pantheon cemetery niches and crypts if the families had not paid a fee for five years running, and more burial space than usual was needed at the time for plague victims — Dr. Leroy was from France and had no local family to pay the storage toll and was thus exhumed from Niche 214 to make room for a paying customer. And to everyone's astonishment, his body was found to have been mummified.
More mummies were quickly found in the then four-year-old cemetery; after some head-scratching, cemetery workers started storing mummies in the cemetery's catacombs... and (living) people started slipping in on the sly to see them.
Guanjuato's Mummy Museum History
Eventually, the city of Guanajuato began officially displaying mummies in a building near the cemetery, bowing to the fact that folks possess a natural curiousity about what someone looks like who's been dead for a century. (And the people of Mexico have a very different relationship with death and the departed than do their northern neighbors — the dead are very much revered, but not feared.) The mummies were apparently stored against walls and leaned hither and thither somewhat helter skelter.
Guanajuato stopped exhuming the mummified bodies in 1958 and in 2007, the museum was remodeled, with the work being carried out in a mere sixty hours. The renovation was gigantic, modernizing the display spaces and showcasing the 111 mummies first and foremost, but including videos and multi-language explanatory plaques.
Mummy Display in the Mummy Museum
The mummies you'll see on display in the Guanajuato mummy museum are not wrapped in a neat linen bundle, as could easily be pictured if you think "King Tut" — these mummies have generally not been retouched, dressed, or "fixed" in any way: you'll see them as they were buried, for the most part (and how they were buried can have a very grisly side. Some of the mummies are still wearing full suits of clothes, like Dr. LeRoy — wonderful look at what people wore in day-to-day life in the mid-1800's, in his case (mummies on exhibit lived anywhere from roughly 1850 to 1950).
Babies, like the infant mummy pictured here, were probably buried with their eyes left open and their hands folded in prayer; it was expected that "Little Angels" would fly straight to heaven where the Virgin awaited them.
In all cases, what might strike a visitor most is seeing bodies, still wearing the clothing they may have walked around and were certainly buried in and sometimes still sporting the very hair on their heads, and realizing that one is looking at real human beings who once lived and breathed.
Ignacia Aguilar's Mummy
In the days of yore, bodies were buried without being embalmed, a process in which blood is let out of the body and an embalming fluid is pumped in, and a process which certainly helps the living avoid accidentally burying someone alive who's thought to be dead -- something that's doubtless happened plenty over the centuries. Did it happen in Guanajuato? There may be proof in the mummy museum.
Ignacia Aguilar, whose mummy is pictured here, was a Guanajuato resident who was thought to have succumbed to the plague and accordingly buried. When her coffin was opened during exhumation, legend says that she was found facing down, leading to speculation that she may have tried to push the coffin lid up with her back. What's absolutely true is that she had scratches on her forehead when her body was exhumed and her arms were over her head: in the 1800's, bodies were buried with arms folded over the chest. These clues led a team from National Geographic to surmise that the legend's true, and that Ignacia Aguilar was buried alive in Guanajuato. Today, her mummy rests in a case with other mummies of her era; she's farthest from the camera in the photo above.
It's an interesting trip, looking at the mummy of a human said to have been murdered, or buried alive. A strange trip.
Though Ignacia Aguilar may have been buried alive, most other mummies in the museum merely died natural deaths, although one Dona Tranquilina Ramirez was said to have been murdered. The chilling rictus most of the mummies wear is natural, despite the seemingly dreadful expressions on the mummies' faces that, at first glance, could be taken for the sort of terror humans sometimes associate with death. However, the drawn faces and open mouths seen on most of Guanajuato's mummies are merely the result of decaying muscle tissue and a subsequently sagging jaw. Of course, dessicated eyeballs laying on cheekbones, as pictured here, are still pretty gruesome...
How Are Mummies Made?
Good question... it's not easy to do intentionally. Conditions must be just right — in Guanajuato, bodies buried in above-ground crypts apparently dehydrate quickly in conditions perfect for mummifying, and the corpses would seem to attract none of the microorganisms neccessary for the natural rot that usually occurs in a dead body. The Guanajuato Museum of Mummies has some interesting info on its website about the process: "There are regions and places that due to their characteristics of extreme dryness, cold, alkalinity, isolation from the elements or from microorganisms, cause the cadaver to mummify instead of decaying completely, as normally occurs in almost any part of the earth’s biosphere." Research is ongoing.