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.
Fiction and fact
Science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, may have been the first person to write about the Guanajuato mummies.
After visiting Guanajuato, he was quite tormented by the sight of the mummies.
In a cathartic exercise, he wrote a short story called “The Next in Line” about an American couple who visit Guanajuato for the Day of the Dead (published in The October Country), saying this of his time in Guanajuato:
“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’”
Visiting the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato
Visiting the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato (the Spanish name for the musuem) is one of the top things to do in Guanajuato.
But 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.
Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato
The museum is open seven days a week, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday to Thursday, open later until 6:30 pm Friday to Sunday.
The website for the Mummy Museum, Guanajuato, is in Spanish, but Google can offer a translation for you.
Other Guanajuato museums
In Guanajuato, we also visited the Diego Rivera Museum – lots of cool art!
And not at all disturbing…
More Guanajuato reading
You may find these travel guides useful…
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Photo credits: © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase
Have you seen a mummy?
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About the authors
Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.
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Monday 30th of June 2014
I can't believe i missed this when I was there last year, weird but very cool!
Sunday 29th of June 2014
I haven't seen nearly enough of Mexico yet; another very interesting town here then. I'm weirdly fascinated with mummies, even the not-so-old ones.
Kevin and Ruth
Tuesday 24th of June 2014
We visited this museum as well. I won't say that we enjoyed it but it was interesting. It's really unbelievable how perfectly preserved the mummies were. Both Kevin and I felt weird about the museum though and thought that it didn't seem right to put these mummies on display like this, it seemed sort of disrespectful to the dead to be put on show like that. Having said that I am glad that we did visit but I wouldn't do it again. You did a great job on the story along with the photos.
Janice and George
Tuesday 24th of June 2014
It was a spontaneous, last-minute decision we made at the end of a full day of exploring to zip into this museum. We're glad we did, but the experience did stir up lots of emotions. Sadness for the little children and babies who died too young. A morbid curiosity. Horror over the woman who apparently was buried alive. We actually weren't going to visit this museum - we thought it would just be too "touristy" since it's one of Guanajuato's most famous and popular attractions (probably the most well-known).
Jenn Smith Nelson
Tuesday 24th of June 2014
Have to admit I am a bit creeped out. But also fascinated.
Monday 23rd of June 2014
Yikes these are grisly, the kind of stuff that would really give me nightmares. I think I would pass on this place.