(This is a chapter from my book, Offbeat Travel: Exploring the Unexpected and Mysterious)
The upright, fully dressed bodies came as a shock to me. Earlier I had visited the catacombs of Rome and found them just a series of tunnels underground; the bodies were long gone. But in Palermo the bodies are there in all their decaying glory: 8000 of them.
Usually I know what to expect when I visit a major tourist site. Although I am occasionally less than impressed, I am sometimes pleasantly surprised when the attraction is greater than its publicity. By and large, I usually have some idea of what it is I am about to see. I was totally unprepared for The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.
Some years back, my wife Carla and I were spending a delightful week in Sicily, enjoying the relics of the Roman and Greek empires and wonderful moonlight walks along the Mediterranean Sea. Another traveler recommended that we must be sure to see the "Museum of Death" in the Capuchin Convent.
We walked down the long staircase of the old church into a musty smelling hallway and what to our wondering eyes should appear but hundreds of mummified bodies dressed in clothes from the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a grotesque and outrageous scene, but nevertheless there was something fascinating about seeing bodies dressed in their personal best, standing in niches. They appeared to be staring back at us from sunken eyes embedded in parchment skin. The drying process has left the skin on the faces but has pulled them into horrifying expressions of terror and pain. Many seemed to be screaming—a massive silent scream.
There are a number of places in the world where the conditions are ideal for preserving bodies. I’ve seen mummies in Mexico, Peru, and Ireland. Palermo’s climate and soil conditions are evidently some of the best for preserving bodies. When they first began the practice, the bodies were laid out in the Catacombs and allowed to dehydrate. They were then washed in vinegar, clothed in their finest and placed on and in the walls. I understand that later the method of embalming was modified and many of the bodies were cured for months in a salt solution.
We were told two stories as to why the bodies were there dressed and standing as if in anticipation of some great event. The first story held that these were devoted believers who wanted to be ready when Christ returned and to be the first to welcome him at the time of the resurrection of the body.
The second story, and the one I heard later, is probably the true reason the practice started. In the 16th century the local priests decided to mummify the body of the holy monk, Brother Silvestro. They felt this would be a great way to preserve his body so they could pray to him after his death. Initially only monks were preserved in this way and placed in the Catacombs. Other citizens of Palermo who heard of this felt this would be a good way to have their loved ones where they could come to visit them and grieve their loss.
Even in death, there were signs that not all people were seen as equals. There are separate sections for priests, men, women, children and professionals. The most "important" people — the lawyers, doctors, and landowners — are in the better-lighted passageways. Many of them have black jackets and some wear top hats. Two and three hundred years, however, even in a dry cool area has left their clothes looking weathered and aged. As you move deeper into the catacombs the corridors become darker and cooler and the mummies and their clothes are in even poorer condition. The clothes are definitely dilapidated and the bodies are showing greater signs of decomposition. We notice here some fingers missing, and there a hand.
Many of the women are lying in shelves cut into the stone walls. Some of them are dressed in their wedding dresses. Children are often grouped in alcoves, smallest in front. In places the bodies are floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Most of those standing are attached to the wall in some way: hooks, ropes, perhaps even nailed.
The most striking, and for us emotionally touching, body is that of a two-year-old girl who is perfectly preserved and who looks like she is asleep in her crib. The doctor who embalmed her died before anyone could learn his secret formula.
Photo taking is not allowed. But you are left with a feeling that somehow taking pictures would be an invasion of their privacy even greater than what you’ve just committed walking amongst them. Their facial expressions are such that you feel they wouldn’t want the world to see them like this.
The Italian government forbid the process in 1881, and only a few bodies have been added by special permission since that date. Not the most pleasant tourist attraction to visit, but certainly one of the most unusual and memorable.