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These Bodies Keep Mummifying in San Bernardo and No One Can Explain Why

Photo Credit: Juancho Torres / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Juancho Torres / Getty Images

Located deep within the mountains of Colombia, a cemetery experiences a unique phenomenon. Every year, when its vaults are opened, the mummified bodies of the deceased are discovered. However, the strange thing is that no one can explain why they become mummified. To this day, the mystery continues.

The mummies of San Bernardo

A mummified body on display.
A body displayed at the San Bernardo cemetery. (Photo Credit: Juancho Torres / Getty Images)

The small town of San Bernardo, located high up in the Andes Mountains, has a cemetery that sees a lot of turnaround in its occupants. That is because officials have to remove the bodies previously interred within its vaults to make way for new ones. When these bodies come out of the vaults, for most, their hair, eyes, and clothes are still intact, a result of the bodies mysteriously mummifying!

The cemetery had first opened in 1960, quickly receiving its first tenants, and by 1963, the first mummy was discovered. As the years carried on, more and more bodies were found to be mummified, and by the 1980s, about 50 mummies were being identified each year. “When all this began, people were a little incredulous about what was happening,” Rocio Vergara, the cemetery’s Museum of Mummies guide, explained. “They thought these were going to be isolated events. As time went on, it became more and more frequent to find bodies in this condition.”

Nowadays, the number of mummified bodies has dropped to around five annually.

Theories as to why they mummify have arisen

Two child mummies on display.
Two young mummies on display in a mausoleum, in San Bernardo, Colombia. (Photo Credit: Yair Suárez / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

While there is no concrete explanation as to why these bodies mummify when interred at the cemetery, several theories have circulated. Interestingly, the town’s two other nearby cemeteries saw zero cases of mummification, making the phenomenon directly related to the above-ground vaults.

Many locals wonder if the mummification process is a reward received in death, given by the gods, while others wonder if it is rather a punishment. More scientifically, some believe that the local diet, which uniquely includes the uncommon guatila and the balu fruits frequently consumed in the area, might explain the cause of the mummification. However, this does little to explain how the clothes of the deceased remain relatively intact alongside their bodies.

Another theory is the location of the vaults. As they are located on a mountain slope, some say that their high altitude and exposure to different winds and temperatures could explain what happens to the bodies. “The wind is constantly blowing as it is hot,” said Daniela Betancourt, an anthropologist at the National University of Colombia. “It is possible to assume that the vaults work like an oven … they dehydrate you.”

Ultimately, there has been little research done to explain why these bodies come out mummified. “There has been a lack (of) studies about what is happening and what specific conditions are the ones that cause people to mummify,” Betancourt explained.

Exhumed bodies have two options

A mummified body on display.
A mummy on display in a mausoleum, in San Bernardo, Colombia. (Photo Credit: Yair Suárez / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

You are probably wondering what happens to the bodies that have been mummified and have been removed from the vaults. Well, the families of the deceased have a couple of options for what they can do with the bodies of their loved ones. They can either have them cremated and do with their ashes what they please, or they can have the mummies moved into a museum for preservation.

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For many, the latter seems like the most fitting option. “If God wanted to preserve her,” explained Clovisnerys Bejarano, daughter of one of those now in the museum, “it must be for a reason.” As a result, there are now more than a dozen mummies at the cemetery’s museum, where a mausoleum was built to preserve and display those donated.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!