Tuesday, February 01, 2011

the tax man cometh

Death and taxes.

The old cliché tells us both are inevitable.  And, sometimes, they stroll the highway hand in hand.

I have an acquaintance who grew up in Guanajuato.  One of the rites of passage for school boys was a visit to the Museo de las Momias (the Mummy Museum).

When he visited in the 1960s, the mummies were displayed in what he calls a "crypt" -- actually a long tunnel.  But flashlights were required.  The mummies were propped up and wired against the wall within reach.

And some visitors did just that.  One of his classmates broke off a piece as a souvenir.

All of that has changed.  The up close and personal approach has now been replaced with museum-quality lucite cases with subdued lighting.  And informative labels in Spanish and English.

The display starts with a phalanx of mummies arranged like a terra cotta army.  Most looking as if they could be Edvard Munch models.

The first solo display is a French doctor -- Remigio Leroy.  He was also the first mummy to be discovered.

But why was he the first?  That brings us back to taxes and death.  And why so many mummies have been discovered in Guanajuato.


Unlike the Egyptians, the people of Guanajuato did not set out to mummify their dead.

In the 1850s, as part of President
Juárez's reforms, all church property was seized by the central government -- including cemeteries.

Being true to its nature, the government decided that even the dead needed to pay taxes.  The family of the deceased was required to pay a burial tax every five years.  If the tax was not paid, the body was exhumed and burned.

The first official grave robbers began their work in 1870.  Because Doctor Leroy had no family to pay his tax, he was among the first to be evicted.  No one expected to find the mummies.  But about 2% of the bodies disinterred were mummified.

No one knew why.  They still don't.  But there were some factors in common.  They were all:

  • Residents of Guanajuato for a minimum of six months
  • Buried above ground in crypts, rather than in the earth
  • Buried in wooden coffins

There are plenty of theories.  But nothing has yet been proven scientifically.

Whatever the reason, the result is startling.  The bodies are recognizable as people.  But recognizable in the same sense as if a German Expressionist had crafted statues out of leather.

The most poignant are the babies.  Not only because of the tragedy we ascribe to the death of any infant, but because of the Mexican custom of dressing babies as angels to convince God that our human nature requires a little disguise.

The museum also has a small collection of photographs showing mothers holding their costumed babies just prior to burial.  As if the child is merely asleep.

The most ghoulish mummy, though, is a woman who had been buried during an epidemic.  To avoid contagion, many bodies were buried almost immediately.  Unfortunately, she was not dead.

When I told my pastor's wife I was going to the Mummy Museum, she said she was interested in hearing my impression of the display -- whether it is appropriate.

I am not certain I have an answer to that question.  Theologically, I know the body is not who the person was.  It is an empty package.

But I also have a visceral bias (undoubtedly based on my culture) that corpses should be treated with respect.  I am not certain I would accept the "empty potato chip bag" metaphor if it was my father being displayed.

(On the other hand, I am the son who takes his father's cremation ashes to church each Father's Day.  I suspect there is little difference.)

And Mexico certainly approaches death with a different attitude.  Its Day and Night of the Dead are but two examples.  The fact that the Mexican government has no qualms about putting the bodies of the martyred insurgents on display in Mexico City is another.

When Ray Bradbury saw the mummies displayed in their pre-museum setting, they had a profound effect on him.  "I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies."  And he wrote a story as a result of the experience.

For me, it was an interesting, but not profound, experience.  One I will remember.  One I will probably not repeat.

And I, too, got a story out of it.


teresa freeburn said...

ineresting, as you said, and i agree, this is one of those things that does not warrant seeing a 2nd time. i had no idea why these people were put were up like that, so thanks again for the history lesson. it makes me wonder about the ones in palermo, i'll have to read up on it.

have a great day!

teresa in l.s.

KimG said...

What a fantastic comment! Thanks.

Kim G
Boston, MA

Steve Cotton said...

ANM writes prose like a poet. Each word is carefully chosen and conveys a comcise thought.