Land of the Dead

Guanajuato’s museo de las momias conjures the epic brutality of Mexico’s past.

For the past few years, we’ve spent part of each summer in Mexico, to escape the dual waves of crime and heat that swamp our hometown of New Orleans in those unbearable months. Like New Orleans, with its jazz funerals and Mardi Gras mortality traditions, Mexico is known for its cultural braiding of life and death, not just with the famous Día de los Muertos, but in daily activity. Every morning, walking our kids to camp in the town of San Miguel de Allende, we’d pass a man building coffins, shop doors wide open, his finished wares on display, as precise and ornate as the cakes in the window of the panadería across the street. During the local film festival, the cemeteries hosted midnight horror movies, which we could not persuade any of our kids to attend with us. On the city bus, a portrait of a bloody, anguished Christ affixed behind the driver’s seat might accompany you on your trip.

No danger in any of that—it enriches your errands, makes you feel more alive. What’s always concerned me about our frequent trips to Mexico is actual danger, not from drug traffickers as my parents feared, but from the seeming lack of universal safety standards, the eschewing of seat belts in taxis, the happy crowding of the disturbingly dilapidated playgrounds, the guardrails that, when they do exist, seem to be always 4 to 6 inches too short. But Mexico is also the most family- and child-centered place I’ve ever visited, and my preoccupations seem to be a by-product of my 21st-century American momhood.

On the 90-minute bus ride from our temporary home in San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato, the capital city of the state of Guanajuato, we debated whether to take our 5-year-old, Otto, to the Museo de las Momias, or Mummy Museum. Exhibiting naturally preserved 19th- and early-20th-century corpses exhumed when families couldn’t pay a burial tax, it’s one of the city’s main attractions. Otto was into Egyptology and Scooby-Doo and had begged to go, though we told him these mummies were a lot different—no sarcophagi, no bandages, no ancient curses that we knew of. My husband finally mentioned that when he went to the museum last year, a lot of kids were there. That swung it for me. If Mexican kids could handle it, so could our little New Orleanian. Accompanying us was my 13-year-old niece, Talbot, who also wanted to see the Mummy Museum and assured me that her parents would be totally cool with it.

You enter Guanajuato through rugged old tunnels, racing out of the subterranean dark straight into the bright glory of its colonial heart—a perfect introduction to a place famed for its disinterred dead and murdered revolutionary heroes. We decided to go first to the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a granary turned military stronghold built at the end of the 18th century. In 1810, it was the site of an early battle of the Mexican War of Independence; Spanish royalists and rich Creole families holed up there with millions of pesos in silver and weapons. The legendary miner El Pípila tied a huge flat stone to his back and crawled through a hail of gunfire to torch the doors of the Alhóndiga, clearing the way for the insurgents. Pillaging and massacring of the royalists ensued. Ultimately, the four main leaders of the insurgency were captured by the Spanish and decapitated, their heads displayed in cages on the corners of the Alhóndiga for 10 years, until the Mexicans finally achieved independence, took the heads down, and brought them to Mexico City for veneration.

The carnage continues across the street, at the Guanajuato Wax Museum, where certain of these historic tableaux are re-created, along with Tom Cruise, Sean Connery, and some disemboweled zombies. When we left the wax museum, Otto, recently caught up in recognizing his “firsts”—his first circus, his first mole (on his arm), his first jellyfish sting—exclaimed, “Hey, that was my first cutoff head in a birdcage.”

After lunch we took a cab up the hill to the Museo de las Momias. Our initial encounter with the corpses was buffered by the souvenir stalls edging the parking lot, the weekend line for tickets, and an introductory film, grainy and evocative with lots of dissolves and shots of cemeteries and people grieving. My Spanish is still terrible, and I didn’t understand much of the narration except the dramatic, trilling repetition of “muerte.”

The first mummified corpse was removed from the cemetery in 1865, and stored in the ossuary by workers startled by its condition. Apparently, the hot and arid climate that draws us to the region each summer contributed to the mummification, as did the vaults that the bodies were all buried in: upon burial, bodies would release their moisture almost immediately into the dry air in the wooden coffins and cement crypts, and would escape further decomposition. As more corpses were exhumed because of the burial tax, the workers began charging a few pesos for a torchlight viewing, and some visitors reportedly broke off pieces of the bodies for souvenirs. The Museo de las Momias had since come a long way, undergoing an extensive renovation in 2007 that the official Web site claims was carried out in less than 60 hours.

Where the climate left off in preserving the corpses, museum science took over, with sensitive lighting and temperature gauges inside Plexiglas boxes. Some mummies were propped upright, some lay on their backs in burial position, arms crossed. All had a blurry, sculptural quality from skin, flesh, organ, and bone haphazardly melding together. Accompanying some of the mummies were small placards with monologues written from their point of view, addressing the viewer directly, a curatorial trick to engage the viewer. But I wanted the dead to remain objects; to consider their humanity made me only more complicit in perpetuating the indignity of their half-naked bodies and moth-eaten skin, even more than just shelling out the pesos at the ticket window.

Even as I pointed out details to Otto and prodded him for reaction, he seemed bored by the parchment-paper skin, the yawning rictuses and tattered clothing. They weren’t cartoon zombies, and even though the vendors in the parking lot tried, with mummy key chains and candy mummy statuettes wearing sombreros and serapes, they were hard to fetishize. Ultimately, Talbot and I decided that the most disturbing aspect of the corpses was the surprisingly robust tufts of pubic hair, visible where the clothes had disintegrated.

Near the end of the exhibit was a row of mummy babies, the angelitos, in their hand-sewn clothes and little booties, many dressed up as angels or saints for their ascent to heaven. One clutched a tiny broom in honor of San Martin de Porres, the patron saint of social justice and hairdressers. Researchers were surprised to find that one of the angelitos, as well as a 24-week-old fetus, had been embalmed, the organs removed and replaced with cotton batting. It’s thought that since infant bodies decompose especially quickly, they would have been embalmed to enable their display in their finery for a few days. With no personal histories to ponder, the families received their deaths with pure grief and ceremony. Angelitos’ funerals were the liveliest, their processions buttressed with even more music and more fireworks, an excess of pageantry contrived to drive away the sadness.

For my part, walking through the museo, I experienced that same inner conflict I feel whenever I hear a story about Mexican drug traffickers who roll severed heads onto a dance floor in Oaxaca or scatter them in ice chests along the highway in Jalisco, making the same statement that the Spanish did 200 years ago: Do not fuck with us. Our brutality is epic. I have a hard time reconciling the vast beauty of the country and the generosity of its people with the atrocities meted out by a few. A similar sentiment nags at any pride I feel for my hometown—often the winner of the title Murder Capital of the United States—so lovely, so special, so dangerous. But even as I encountered death at every turn, I failed—like Otto—to conjure the revulsion that the travel guidebook had warned about. Maybe the mildness of my reaction was because at that point in the day—after the parade of atrocities we’d seen depicted in murals, in wax—I knew that nature is far more gentle with the body in death than is the human imagination.