Vivienne Gunning
24 Apr

Palermo, the city that always keeps me on my toes with its mix of love and frustration, surprised me yet again on my final morning before heading to Agrigento. A passing mention of thousands of impeccably dressed mummies beneath a monastery piqued my curiosity.

Could such a thing be real? Determined to find out, I embarked on a personal quest to locate the Capuchin Catacombs at The Church of Santa Maria Della Pace. The reality surpassed any expectations I had. Stepping into the cool, dark, tranquil catacombs, I navigated a maze of quiet corridors with rows of mummified figures. For hours, I was lost in awe and with respectful admiration. 

It felt as if my capacity to absorb everything I saw and every emotion I had, was just too small. Once again, I realised how little we know of the wonders of this world, the history, and the lives of people before our generations. Was these Catacombs a dream of eternal life? 

However, the catacombs gradually expanded to accommodate members of all social levels, from nobles to professionals. These were dressed in contemporary and professional attire. Being entombed there became a mark of status, resulting in a diverse array of individuals preserved for eternity. According to legend, the family had to pay regular contributions. As long as contributions continued, the body remained in its proper place, but if relatives stopped sending money, the body was put aside on a shelf until they resumed payments. 

The corridors were divided into categories for men, women, virgins, children, priests, monks, and professionals. Some stood upright, while others rested in niches or behind glass cases. Each one seemed to whisper a story, offering a glimpse into the lives and traditions of Palermo's people over the centuries. The Capuchin Catacombs are home to around 8,000 corpses and 1,252 mummies (as stated by the last census made by EURAC in 2011) * preserved in varying states of decay. The preservation techniques are as fascinating as they are macabre. Initially intended as a resting place for Capuchin friars, preserved with their everyday clothing and sometimes with ropes. In 1871 Brother Riccardo was the last friar interred in the catacombs. 

Most of the bodies underwent natural mummification. After death, they were taken to a preparation room called the 'colatoio,' where internal organs were removed and replaced with straw or bay leaves to aid dehydration. The dry Sicilian air and unique catacomb conditions further contributed to their preservation, with some bodies remarkably intact while others have decayed over time, adding to the eerie ambience. These preservation techniques, both fascinating and macabre, are a testament to the ingenuity and cultural practices of the time. 

The last burials in the Capuchin Catacombs date back to the 1920s and 1930s. One notable interment from this period is that of Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia and was only nearly two years old at the time of her death. Her father, a nobleman, was so sad when she died and commissioned a taxidermist, Professor Alfredo Salafia, to embalm her so that she would live forever. Remarkably, her body remains well-preserved to this day, thanks to a procedure performed by Professor Salafia. His preservation method involved several steps: formalin to eliminate bacteria, alcohol to aid in drying the body, glycerine to prevent excessive drying, salicylic acid to combat fungi, and most importantly, zinc salts (specifically zinc sulphate and zinc chloride) to provide rigidity to the body. 

I have a lot of respect for Sicilians, where death has always been part of life. I also refer to my blog about the beautiful Certosa Cemetery in Messina, Sicily. "Enchanted Stones: A Journey Through Certosa Monumental Cemetery, Messina, Sicily"

Visiting the Capuchin Catacombs wasn't a morbid or depressing experience for me. Instead, it served as a stark reminder of our mortality and the enduring nature of the human soul in contrast with the short-lived physic. In awe and with respectful admiration, it felt as if my capacity to absorb everything I saw and every emotion I had was just too small. Once again, I realised how little we know of the wonders of this world, the history, and the lives of people before our generations. To observe these soulless bodies should be embraced when exploring Sicily’s rich history and culture was an endearing, special feeling. “And for centuries, many Sicilians were using mummification to make sure there was a constant relationship between life and death.” — Dario Piombino – Mascali, who are the leading Anthropologist on the Sicily Mummy Project  

On this blog, I have not used any personal photos to adhere to the rules since they are prohibited. Instead, I've reached out to the catacombs' authorities to seek permission to incorporate specific photos into my blog. This approach ensures that I'm respecting everyone's rights.

Photo credit: *

* The email will not be published on the website.