I like graveyards. There’s a funeral or at least a burial scene in practically everything I’ve written. I’ve visited famous cemeteries all over the world, including: the St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the Highgate Cemetery in London, and, of course, the Pyramids of Egypt. I like the mysticism, and the elaborate tombstones, and the rituals that are part religion and part performance art.
Many people share my fascination. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend so much time and energy—not to mention money—on funerals and crypts, and all the fantastic graveyard art, especially in the old world cemeteries. Burial is not so much a way of disposing of the dead as it is a last right of passage, out of this world into the next—the
final act of the dearly departed after which everything will be different because they are no longer be around.
Every culture has burial and funeral customs. Some of them are solemn and some of them are just plain weird, but everybody has them—even New Age agnostics—and on a very basic level they are all the same. Whether we bury our loved ones under a twenty ton slab of granite or we scatter their ashes on the Appalachian
Trail, we do something that is meaningful to us, and (we hope) will be meaningful to the loved ones whether they actually know about it or not.
When I learned about the Museo de las Mommias in Guanajuato Mexico I thought: “This is right up my alley.” I thought Mexican mummies must be the product of some ancient Central American pre-Columbian culture. They had pyramids didn’t they? So maybe pyramid cultures came equipped with mummy technology.
Imagine my surprise. The Guanajuato mummies weren’t the product of an elaborate embalming routine. They were people who were buried in crypts roughly between the years of 1830 and 1958. Most of them died in a cholera outbreak in 1833.
In 1865 the city imposed a local tax for burials. A family could pay a one time fee of 170 pesos and be done with it. If they didn’t have 170 pesos to spare they could elect to pay the city a 50 pesos per year. If they neglected to pay, for any reason, the deadbeat dead were removed from the crypts
and stored in a warehouse. Most of the bodies had disintegrated, but about 2% of them had mummified naturally.
The cemetery workers started charging Mexican tourists a small fee to come and view the natural mummies. Bits and pieces of the bodies were taken by tourists as souvenirs. Over the years, the warehouse became a popular destination and eventually the warehouse was turned into a museum.
In 1958 the tax law was changed and no more bodies were disinterred but by then the museum was going strong. It gained popularity in 1970 with the release of a movie, Santo Versus the Mummies of Guanajuato, starring the popular masked wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta.
The mummies were the inspiration for the short story, “The Next in Line” by Ray Bradbury. In the introduction to his collection, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, the author wrote: “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.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”
The mummies have gone on tour in the United States and have been shown in The Detroit Science Center in 2009, The West End Dallas Market in 2011, and The Natural Science
Center of Greensboro in 2012. The collection includes a fetal mummy (advertised as the world’s smallest) and the mummy of Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive). Most of the mummies are naked. A few are wearing socks (with shoes and without). Some are fully dressed in what appears to be fairly modern clothing.
Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. You can read my fiction and make the comparison yourself. Major scenes in Owl Dreams take place in a cemetery. There are cemetery / burial scenes in Magic Popsicle Sticks and Trial Separation (to be released soon by Pen-L Publishing), and the streets are literally littered with the dead in the Kindle short, “Messages”.