Underneath a graveyard in central Mexico, a macabre museum provides a terrifying stop along the tourist trail. After all, what lurks inside its display cabinets is capable of haunting visitors’ dreams for days and weeks to come. In fact, some who have taken a peek feel physically sick at the sight of the unearthly exhibits. So what are the dark secrets behind one of the world’s strangest attractions?
You’ll find this morbid museum in Guanajuato, Central Mexico, around 240 miles north of Mexico City. Back in the 19th century, life in the mining city was notoriously tough. In 1833, for instance, the inhabitants began to run out of places to bury their dead after a devastating outbreak of cholera.
So, in 1853, city officials decided to construct a large civic cemetery on Trozado hill in order to solve the problem. And burials began in earnest a year later, despite the site not being completed. In fact, demand remained so high that in 1860 the city extended Santa Paula Pantheon further.
From the early 1860s onwards, then, cemetery workers began to place bodies into specially made crypts. Yet despite creating rows and rows of these stacked tombs, burial space soon began to run out again. Because of this, officials came up with a novel way of increasing the profitability of their venture.
In 1865 Guanajuato city began to impose a tax on graves. Yes, relatives had to pay a fee to lease a burial spot for their loved ones. And if they didn’t pay up for three years running, the bodies were unceremoniously dug up and removed from the cemetery.
The first unfortunate soul to fall victim to this frightful fate was Remigio Leroy, a French doctor who passed away while visiting Guanajuato. His body had been buried in a niche within the cemetery, but officials made the decision to disinter his remains on June 9, 1865. When they did, though, they were in for a shock.
Gravediggers discovered that Leroy’s body had become mummified during the 20 years it had been entombed. Moreover, the former medical practitioner was almost perfectly preserved, right down to the clothes he was wearing on the day of his burial.
Understandably, the discovery of Leroy’s mummified body caused quite a stir in Guanajuato. But soon he wasn’t the only celebrity body at Santa Paula. Indeed, as officials began to evict more of the crypts’ occupants, they discovered more and more preserved bodies hidden within.
However, some claimed that officials kept the bodies in case their families came up with the money for a re-burial. Yet others believed that the mummified corpses drew so much attention that they were preserved as a macabre tourist attraction even as far back as the 19th century.
Whatever the reason, the mummies were duly removed to an ossuary beneath the boneyard. Visitors then started trickling in, attracted by tales of creepy cadavers. At first, the visits were done in private on the payment of a few pesos. But over time Guanajuato’s room of preserved bodies became an open secret.
Of course, the practice of mummification stretches back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians believed that in order to enjoy the afterlife, their bodies had to be well preserved after death. In fact, burial methods soon became a part of the social hierarchy. Therefore, those of higher standing were impressively embalmed to guarantee a good-looking corpse.
Ancient civilizations in South America were also known to deliberately mummify the bodies of their dead. For instance, some dried out the corpses over hot ashes, while others preserved them in ice high in the Andes Mountains.
But not all mummies are the result of intentional preservation. Some, like those in Guanajuato, occur completely by accident when the right combination of natural factors aligns. In the airtight crypts of Santa Paula, the lack of oxygen is thought to have led to the mummification of many corpses.
Nevertheless, the mummies of Guanajuato became so popular that in 1894 the ossuary officially transformed into a museum. And tourists still flock to the city to gawp at the glass cases, full of gruesome exhibits, over 120 years later.
Yes, groups of visitors now go on grisly, guided tours around the museum of mummies. While it is no doubt a popular attraction, some tourists have lived to regret their decision. “It’s terrifying,” Maria Goncalves told the MailOnline. “I feel sick to my stomach.”
After all, many of the mummies have been frozen in time, with bizarre, distorted expressions on their faces. This is because the mummies of Guanajuato were preserved via a natural process, rather than deliberate embalming. Still, there are many legends around the mummies and the circumstances of their deaths.
One particularly horrific specimen can be seen burying her face in her hands, her mouth locked in a perpetual scream. The story goes that this unfortunate young woman suffered from a medical condition that caused her heart to stop. Her family, therefore, mistakenly buried her alive.
Other notable mummies in the collection include that of a pregnant woman. In addition, there is what is believed to be the world’s smallest mummy. These are the preserved remains of a four-month-old fetus whose mother died of cholera.
Some sources state that the practice of evicting tombs – and subsequently cherry picking the best inhabitants for the museum – ended in 1958. Others, however, claim that the mummy of a baby was placed in the museum as recently as 2004, after just five years interred in a tomb. His parents had apparently dressed him as Saint Bartholomew, no doubt contributing to his appeal as a potential exhibit.
For tourists visiting the museum today, though, the mummies are just another macabre attraction in a country known for venerating – and celebrating – its dead. But although some are shocked by what they find, government spokesman Arturo Tabares told the MailOnline that most enjoy the experience. “We have a different cultural approach to death in Mexico,” he said. “Here we celebrate the cycle of life and death as inevitable.”