of the mummies
the largest catacomb of preserved mummies is found under the church and
monastery of the Capuchin monks in Palermo, Italy.
The Capuchin monks had
arrived in Palermo about 1534. When one of their members died, he was
buried (apparently rather ingloriously) in an adjacent grotto. By 1599,
the grotto was full of deceased monks, and a new resting place was dug.
When the bodies were exhumed from the grotto, many were well-preserved (author
Melanie King puts the number at 45). So when the catacomb was
begun in the crypts beneath the monastery and church, the monks already
knew that with proper care and preparation, other monks might become
well-preserved after death.
Brother Silvestro of Gubbio
became the first monk placed in the newly-created catacomb in 1599.
Priests soon followed.
Eventually, the well-to-do
and famous people were allowed to be buried there. Apparently, they had
to pay an annual fee, according to J. Ross Browne, a newspaper reporter
who visited the catacombs around 1853. He learned that the
catacombs were "supported by contributions from the relatives of
the deceased, who pay annually a certain sum for the preservation of the
bodies. Each newcomer is placed in a temporary niche, and afterward
removed to a permanent place, where he is permitted to remain as long as
the contributions continue; but when the customary fees are not
forthcoming the corpses are thrown aside on a shelf, where they lie till
the relatives think proper to have them set up again."
The last clerical burial
occurred in 1871, though Rosalia Lombardo
was buried there in 1920, one of the last allowed.
Before the catacomb was
begun, bodies placed in the grotto were preserved naturally. Beginning in 1599,
however, the monks
helped create the mummies artificially.
One (most common method): The body was placed in a small
room called a "strainer" which lined the main passageways of
the crypt. These tiny rooms were edged with a ceramic grid so that
bodies laid upon the grid could drain into limestone gravel beneath the grid. The bodies were then allowed to dry over a period of
eight months or so.
Aufderheide describes the strainer cells this way:
"It was a rectangular room about 4 meters X 5 meters with a
vaulted, stone-lined ceiling. A ventilating tube about 8 cm in diameter
placed high on one wall traversed the rear wall of the room to reach the
outside air. The floor was dirt (limestone)."
After eight months, the
bodies were washed in vinegar before their removal from the strainer
cell. Then they were dressed and placed in coffins or hung from hooks in
niches on the walls of the catacombs.
Two (rarely used except during epidemics): The body of
the deceased was dipped in arsenic or lime.
Three (again rarely used): The body of the deceased would
be embalmed. This technique may have been used only once on the
now-famous corpse of Rosalia Lombardo.
A trip to the Capuchin
Catacombs is quite thought-provoking and, depending on your imagination,
a bit eerie. The day I went it was raining, and the downpour outside was
evident in the crypt. Water was dripping, even echoing, as the rain
poured outside. The catacombs were empty of tourists that day, as I
walked along the limestone corridors observing the many people buried
One account of a trip to the
catacombs was written by American explorer and diplomat John
Lloyd Stephens in his book, Incidents
of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petra and the Holy Land (from Chapter 17).
Palermo I had seen the bodies of nobles and ladies, the men arranged
upright along the walls, dressed as in life, with canes in their hands
and swords by their sides; and the noble ladies of Palermo lying in
state, their withered bodies clothed in silks and satins, and adorned
with gold and jewels; and I remember one among them, who, if then
living, would have been but twenty, who two years before had shone in
the bright constellation of Sicilian beauty, and, lovely as a light from
heaven, had led the dance in the royal palace; I saw her in the same
white dress which she had worn at the ball, complete even to the white
slippers, the belt around her waist, and the jeweled mockery of a watch
hanging at her side, as if she had not done with time for ever; her face
was bare, the skin dry, black, and shriveled, like burnt paper; the
cheeks sunken; the rosy lips a piece of discolored parchment; the teeth
horribly projecting; the nose gone; a wreath of roses around her head;
and a long tress of hair curling in each hollow eye....
excellent account, by journalist J. Ross Browne, was published as a
chapter in his book, Yusef, or the Journey of the Frangi,
published in 1872.
first paragraph reads
the ancient and ruinous court of the convent, distant about a mile from
the city, I was conducted by a ghostly-looking monk through some dark
passages to the subterranean apartments of the dead. It was not my first
visit to a place of this kind, but I must confess the sight was rather
startling. It was like a revel of the dead a horrible, grinning, ghastly
exhibition of skeleton forms, sightless eyes, and shining teeth, jaws
distended, and bony hands outstretched ; heads without bodies, and
bodies without heads the young, the old, the brave, the once beautiful
and gay, all mingled in the ghastly throng. I walked through long
subterranean passages, lined with the dead on both sides; with a
stealthy and measured tread I stepped, for they seemed to stare at the
intrusion, and their skeleton fingers vibrated as if yearning to grasp
the living in their embrace. Long rows of upright niches are cut into
the walls on each side; in every niche a skeleton form stands erect as
in life, habited in a robe of black; the face, hands, and feet naked,
withered, and of an ashy hue; the grizzled beards still hanging in tufts
from the jaws, and in the recent cases the hair still clinging to the
skull, but matted and dry. To each corpse is attached a label upon which
is written the name and the date of decease, and a cross or the image of
To read the entire chapter
by Browne, click here.
Information about the catacombs is difficult to come by, and
I have a number
of lingering questions after my research. Most accounts report that
8,000 bodies were interred in the catacombs, but it is unclear how many
remain today and what happened to the rest. Some reports indicate that
only 2,000 or so bodies are now exhibited.
What happened to the
others? One author wrote: "American
troops removed and carried them off as souvenirs" during World War
II. I do not know if this is true. Another
author indicated that Allied bombing during World War II damaged the
catacombs and destroyed many of the bodies interred there. Again, I do
not know if this is true. If you have any information to share, please
send it along.
catacombs are organized
The catacomb has a number
of sections arranged along five long limestone corridors: Men, Women, Children, Priests, Monks, and
for closing the chapel to visitors and other minor attempts to
vandal-proof the catacombs, the Capuchin friars have not attempted any
type of restoration, according to The Telegraph. However, "they are
launching a project, co-funded by the European Union, to conserve the
"This is a major
tourist destination, but our facilities are no longer capable of
welcoming so many," Father Calogero Peri told reporters. "This
is our very rare heritage which we must open up to academics from all
over the world."
The restoration will include
an elevator, a fire alarm system, closed-circuit television cameras, and
a glass walkway that will lead visitors though the mummies.
In other words, if you want
to see the catacombs in their relatively undisturbed and low-tech state,
now is the time.
In addition, research will
be conducted on the mummies. According to The Telegraph, "Only
around 1,000 of the mummies have been formally identified, with their
dates of birth and death. The project will extract DNA from the mummies
to group them together into families, identify their age, sex and likely
cause of death.... The researchers are particularly interested in
discovering the process of mummification. One occupant who will be given
special attention is Rosalia Lombardo,
a two-year-old girl who appears to be in perfect physical condition,
despite being buried more than nearly 90 years ago."
catacombs are on the outskirts of Palermo at Piazza Cappuccini. They can
be reached on foot (if you enjoy walking--and Palermo is a beautiful
city for a stroll) or by cab. I walked there myself from the city
center, and though it took awhile, I enjoyed every step.
If you wish to fly to
Sicily, Palermo has a good, small airport (which is a 45-minute train
ride from the airport to the central station; it costs about €5). The
largest airport on Sicily is found on the other end of the island at
Catania (under the dramatic gaze of Mount Etna). From this airport,
visitors can take a direct bus to downtown Palermo (the trip takes about
two and one half hours and costs about €14).
If you are in Naples,
another alternative for visiting Palermo is to take the ferry from
Naples. You can also drive down the length of Italy to the Straits of
Messina where you will cross by ferry.
information about the catacombs
following books contain some information about the Capuchin Catacombs:
Dying Game: A Curious History of Death
by Melanie King
Scientific Study of Mummies by Arthur Aufderheide
Goth Bible by Nancy Kilpatrick
of Death & Dying by
Clifton D. Bryant
Mummies by Christine Quigley
Caves and Catacombs by
H. Davenport Adams
An article entitled
"The Well-Dressed Dead" by Bob Brier can be found in the May/June
2003 (vol. 56, no. 3) issue of
photos can be found at the King's
Capuchins' Catacombs website.