The smallest mummy in the world is an almost perfectly-preserved six-month old fetus.
It’s on display at the Guanajuato Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, a lovely UNESCO-listed Mexican colonial town.
Guanajuato Mummy Museum
Built next to a cemetery, the famous (and macabre) museum has more than 100 mummies – the largest collection in the western hemisphere.
Many mummies are still wearing their shoes and tattered remnants of clothing.
Unlike the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum, though, these mummies are not thousands of years old.
History of the Guanajuato mummies
Gravediggers exhumed the first mummified body in 1865. More bodies were soon disinterred.
The story goes that a new law required families to pay a burial tax to keep their loved ones buried forever. If they couldn’t pay, authorities dug up the corpses, mummified naturally by the soil’s minerals.
By the late 1880s, the curious started coming to see the mummies, sometimes even breaking off pieces as souvenirs.
Today the mummies of Guanajuato – their skin looking like parchment paper – are displayed behind glass cases.
How did they die?
Many of the mummies were people who were victims of a cholera epidemic that raged through the area in the early 1800s. To help control the spread of the disease, bodies were buried immediately.
Tragically, it’s thought that some of the sick and dying were buried alive.
Particularly haunting is the mummy of a woman who experts say was buried alive after being wrongly pronounced dead from cholera.
One arm covers her face, her open mouth drawn back in what looks like a horrified scream.
The world’s smallest mummy was also a victim of cholera – the fetus is from a pregnant woman who died of the disease.
More grisly is the museum’s “chamber of death.”
An open coffin contains a mummy with spikes piercing right through the body and skull – the plaque explains in Spanish that this was the unfortunate man’s punishment for offending the Catholic church.
Visiting the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato
Even though visiting the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato (the Spanish name for the musuem) is one of the top things to do in Guanajuato, many visitors prefer to skip it, feeling it’s too morbid.
We have to remember, though, that death in the Mexican culture is viewed differently than it is by North Americans and Europeans. Consider the Day of the Dead holiday, where death is embraced and celebrated as part of life.
Certainly, this extraordinary mummy exhibit gives pause for reflection. Who were these people when alive? What were their stories – their dreams and hopes?
For us, it was with some relief when we finished our Guanajuato mummies tour and rejoined the land of the living outside in the sunshine.
Other Guanajuato museums
In Guanajuato, we also visited the Diego Rivera Museum – lots of cool art! And not at all disturbing…
More Guanajuato reading
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More Mexico culture
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Photo credits: © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase