Capuchin Catacombs Of Palermo
WORLD HISTORY | August 7, 2019
Capuchin Catacombs. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)
Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world and it seems there is a tourist attraction for every interest. History buffs might visit one of the many ruins from the ancient world, such as Machu Picchu, alien enthusiasts might visit one of the tourist attractions near Area 51, and Disney lovers might visit one of the many theme parks around the globe. And for those whose interests lean more to the macabre, there are places like the Capuchin Monastery Catacombs located in the Sicilian city of Palermo.
Sicily has long been reputed to have a fascination with death, being one of the only places where professional mourners still exist. So, it should come as no surprise that it is also the home of a place where the dead are not buried but are instead put on display. While the Capuchin Monastery looks like a normal building on the outside, it is home to thousands of corpses, dressed in formal attire, not sealed in tombs as they would be in a mausoleum, but instead pinned to the walls, sitting on benches and shelves, or lying in open coffins.
The catacombs were created in the late 16th century. A monk by the name of Brother Silvestro of Gubbio had recently died, but the cemetery at the Capuchin Monastery was full. Rather than expanding the cemetery, the monks chose to excavate the crypts below the cemetery and planned to exhume and move several of the bodies from the already overcrowded tombs. During the exhumation process, they discovered forty-five bodies had been naturally mummified. They believed this to be an act of God and chose to display, rather than bury, their fallen brother. His body is still on display at the entrance of the catacombs and is the oldest corpse to be preserved there.
For the first few centuries, the catacombs were reserved for the preservation of deceased monks; however, it was eventually offered to residents of Palermo who were willing and able to pay for the service. By this time, the monks had honed their preservation techniques, taking advantage of the catacombs’ naturally dry atmosphere and building a series of drying rooms where corpses would lay for a year before being bathed in vinegar and stuffed with hay. The bodies would then be dressed in clothing provided by the families of the deceased. It was an expensive process; therefore, only the wealthiest families could afford the upkeep.
Even among these wealthiest residents of Palermo, there were various classes and the catacombs are divided accordingly. The first room was reserved for the monks. There is a separate section for men, women, and infants. The Women’s Section has a specific area just for virgins and those corpses are identified by a metal band around their skulls. There is also a Professors’ Section for housing the remains of doctors, soldiers, and other professionals. And, finally, a small section just for priests.
The last person to be interred in the catacombs was two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo in 1920. She has been nicknamed “Sleepy Beauty” due to the near-perfect preservation of her body, which makes her appear to just be sleeping despite having been dead nearly a century. Her body and thousands of others are now on display for anyone willing to pay the admission price, though guests are asked to be respectful of the deceased and to refrain from speaking loudly or taking pictures.
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