(Warning: images get more disturbing).
In a dusty, nondescript corner of old Palermo there is a dark, badly-signposted doorway that leads down into The Capuchin Catacombs. A hooded monk sitting on a stool took my entrance fee (currently €3) and I descended into the deep, musty depths expecting a few auld skulls.
I was wrong – this place is not for the faint-hearted. It is positively terrifying.
Click on image for location
There are said to be 8,000 corpses lining the corridors of the catacombs, most of them fully clothed. It’s like The Walking Dead in period costume. I felt panicky, then nauseated, then fascinated – what kind of national psyche could allow such a thing to exist? It’s almost too much WTF to handle.
It seems that this edifice was originally filled with deceased monks to supplement the overflowing local cemeteries. In time, it was noticed that – due to the methods used and the unique environment – the bodies were miraculously well preserved.
It became fashionable for upper-class Sicilians to have their loved ones displayed in the catacombs, often dressed in their best garb and sometimes arranged in poses. Passageways and extensions were added to meet the increasing demand.
It was traditional for the family to visit the corpse on special occasions to clasp its hands and pray with it; they would also change its clothes, comb its hair and apply perfumes.
Was interment in the catacombs simply a status symbol? Or did it give comfort, was it a way to cheat death, to ensure that loved ones were rendered immortal?
The Chapel of the Children
Maria and Mario Lombardo were heartbroken when their first child Rosalia died of a fever in 1920, a week before her second birthday. To preserve her for eternity, they quickly had her embalmed in their own home by an expert and placed in the Palermo catacombs.
At that time she was their only child. Her father asked embalmer Alfredo Salafia to “make her live forever”.
(Image from postcard, Catacombe dei Cappuccini)
Rosalia is known as “the Sleeping Beauty of Palermo” since she appears to be simply resting.
The psychology behind the place is mind-boggling. What were the parents of these children thinking? Was it really a comfort to see them posed like this, in this crypt?
Could any modern parent relate to these terrible rituals?
La Cappella dei Bambini
Children displayed in the niches
The diabolical strangeness of the crypts
The Chapel of the Virgins
“They follow the lamb wherever he goes: they are virgins”
One of the sections is dedicated to unmarried virgins, dead before they had the chance to become wives and mothers; as such, the girls were displayed in the wedding dresses that they would one day have been married in.
I Corridoi della Morte
The mummies were segregated throughout the various rooms by profession, gender and social status. There are corridors dedicated solely to priests; professionals such as doctors, lawyers and soldiers; prominent women and men divided by sex; and a corridor of entire families posed together.
You can also visit the embalming room where the bodies were drained on a hellish type of colander created by the monks.
Residents of the Catacombs
Men of Palermo
The Standing Dead
The mindset responsible for these displays is unfathomable. I came away racked with wonder at the motivation of the families who vied to have their children exhibited here. Venerable old dignitaries preserved for posterity is one thing. But children and babies? I have not yet found a reasonable explanation for it.
Visit now, if you can stand it – the place has recently received publicity because the mummies are under accelerated threat from decay. It’s definitely not for the sensitive, though.
But from a social and cultural perspective it’s definitely one of Europe’s most fascinating historical curiosities, this sad, grotesque museum of the dead.
‘La Veglia Eterna: Catacombe dei Cappuccini di Palermo’
By Ivan Cenzi, Carlo Vannini
‘The Living Dead: Inside the Palermo Crypt’ by Marco Lanza
Cover picture (top): See link Habanero666 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons