70 days were necessary for the preparation of a mummy in ancient Egypt. An archaeologist in dusty khaki describes how priests first removed any organ which would decay rapidly; the brain was drawn out through the nasal cavity and an incision was performed along the left side of the abdomen from its contents could be easily extracted. It seems that the ancient Egyptian priests of falcon and jackal-headed gods were also medical experts, the archeologist would continue on expertly his British accent somehow adding to the imagined drama, pausing to appreciate illustrations, the narration rolling along in my mind as I read.
As a million children before me and a million after, I lay on my belly under the blankets of my bunk-bed, the tiny glow of my mind transfixed by the scenes of mystical priest-doctors. The precision and the twist of smoke, I melted into the damp chamber and could smell the perfumed oils as I followed behind the priest hypnotized by his preparations for the dead. As cars passed in front of our house their shadows fanned out across my bedroom walls and wrapped in a transparent cotton sheet, I read late into the night. It was during these forbidden hours when I first conceptualized an afterlife for myself. Such a catalyst, that forever I have had an incurable curiosity for the mystic, for an understanding of the relationship between essence and its physical representation.
A friend from home had moved to a small Mexican city about four hours by bus from where I was living in Guadalajara. An area rich in precious metals for centuries the fortunes of many men had been made in Guanajuato, beginning with Nahuatl-speaking groups indigenous to the area, then the Aztecs and those who paid the great empire tribute, eventually even the Spanish discovered wealth within its steep canyon walls . By the time I arrived, Guanajuato had become a college town, a popular destination for tourists interested in colonial-era history and once a year hosts of a large contemporary arts festival. Due to its geographical positioning, generations of city occupants had been building their homes upwards from the plaza into the walls of the canyon, creating a network of residential, and thoroughly pedestrian, alleyways.
The highway bus stopped at a simple station outside of central Guanajuato and I easily transferred to a local bus which then gliding through illuminated underground tunnels until finally surfacing in front of a sandstone plaza. My friend stood waiting, bathed in the warm glow of street lights, flickering. I then followed after him into the dark, steadily climbing through the narrow stairway for what seemed to be a couple of vertical city blocks. He was lodging with a family running a small corner store at one of the steeply intersecting alleyways. They had ingeniously built a room below their store and were letting out bunk beds to young single male students while they studied at the various schools of Guanajuato. The monthly fee for accommodations included all of their meals, prepared by the mother herself and served at a table in the kitchen adjoining their store.
After dropping off my bag we made our way upstairs to sit in the kitchen and chat with the family as they helped customers, played with the baby and cooked late night snacks. The father had just returned home from a Peregrinacion- a pilgrimage requiring the believer to walk for many miles in order to reach a specific destination of sacred orientation. The walk itself is meant to be an offering, proof of your commitment to the prayer your carry with you and of your dedication to God. Some pilgrims crawl; bellies traversing asphalt, gravel, debris, others travel on their hands and knees – cut and bleeding by the time they finally arrive, some carry large and often heavy religious idols, some cover extraordinary distances. He looked tired and as I listened to him describe journey, of which I understood only a portion, I imagined what his prayer had been.
The next morning we climbed the small, bald hill above the city and sat as his friend played guitar and we looked out towards the horizon for an hour or so before descending into the city center and seeking out the museum of mummies. Guanajuato had become quite famous for the museum, once a makeshift display presented by an enterprising local man, the ‘museum’ had become something of a legend in Mexico with one of the most beloved Luchadores (Costumed Wrestlers) “El Santo” dedicating the entire plot of one of his movies (El Santo Contra Las Momias de Guanajuato) to the mummies in the museum.
Originally the bodies on display had been buried in the normal fashion utilizing plots in the cemetery nearby. That was where they remained until surviving family members could no longer afford to pay the rent for keeping them in the plots and the bodies were exhumed to make way for paying “customers”. The groundskeeper accumulated enough bodies that people, both locals and tourists, began paying him a fee to view the collection propped crudely against the back wall. Now the bodies are more professionally presented behind glass and the whole experience is more organized with tours and a ticket booth. The “Mummies of Guanajuato” were naturally mummified, so well preserved in fact that it is possible to examine the remaining clothing, hair, eyelashes, fingernails. There is even what some consider to be the worlds smallest mummy, a fetus on view.
Walking quietly flanked by corpses whose flesh had slowly been dried by the same minerals which had also made men wealthy in life, the fingers curled and the skin of their faces lay bare stretching against their skulls… I was, at first, saddened for the exposure they seemed to be enduring. Theosophical contrasting the mummies of my childhood, these bodies lay unprepared and alone. If the snaking plumes of incense and sacred whispers of doctor priests were not with these bodies did they wander blinded somewhere? Before I returned to the afternoon sunshine, I turned to look back down the length of the museum. A soft dust disturbed by the shuffling lines of visitors rose above muffled voices, settling again on the glass once the voices quieted…and I realized I was, as each of the visitors, participating in a ceremony. We were each whispering our incantations for the afterlife, a preparation already far surpassing 70 days in length.