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  • Capuchin Catacombs

    by Anthony Parente

    Located in the city of Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily is without a doubt one of the most interesting, intriguing and gruesome tourist spots in the world. This place, which is sometimes referred to as the Museum of Death, contains some 8000 mummified bodies that date back to the 16th century. These bodies line the walls of the Catacombs, which is located directly underneath the Capuchin Convent.

    In the 16th century 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. The initial intention was that only monks would be preserved this way and housed in the Catacombs. When others heard of this they too wanted to be able to preserve their loved ones so they could visit them and grieve their loss.

    The process of mummification was initially done by laying the bodies in rooms located within the Catacombs. The bodies would undergo a process of dehydration. Once this process was complete they would wash the bodies in vinegar. In addition to the process of dehydration some of the bodies were embalmed to help preserve their appearance and some were enclosed in sealed glass. Once the mummies were ready they would be clothed and placed on the walls. The Catacombs are divided into groups. There is a section for priests & monks, men, women, children and professionals. All in all some 8000 individuals fill the catacombs, which are open to the public.

    Due to a law by the Italian government in 1881 the Catacombs were no longer permitted to continue this process of mummification. Even though law prohibited the Convent from adding mummies to the Catacombs it wasn't until 1920 that the last body would be officially interred in the Catacomb. With special permission from the Italian government the body of a 2-year-old child named Rosalia Lombardo was added. What amazed me the most about the addition of Rosalia is how well preserved her body is. If you take one look you would not guess that she died almost 100 years ago. The photo looks more like the picture of a child's doll. The doctor responsible for the embalming process on Rosalia died before anyone could learn of his methods.

    While discussing the Catacombs with Sicula, a regular on the Italian Culture Forum, I was told of an interesting story passed down from family lore. It appears that Sicula's grandfather and his buddies enjoyed pulling pranks. In fact they would sneak in the monastery and take off with one of the mummies, only to return it later. If you have any stories of family lore that you would like to share please post them on the forum.

    These bodies are both a look into the past as well as the future. For that reason the Catacombs are not for the faint of heart and it is definitely not a place you want to take your children. It can be quite disturbing to see the bodies, especially those of children, decorating the walls of a catacomb and this isn't an image that children should remember.

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