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Huddersfield, United Kingdom
December 27, 2011
From journal Highlights of Palermo
May 28, 2004
The Cappuccini monks arrived in Palermo early 16th century. The monks buried their dead, one over the other in, in a limestone catacombs. At the end of the 16th century while exhuming the bodies, the monks made a shocking discovery many of the dead had been naturally mummified.
The monks decided to bury one of their recently deceased monks to see if he would be naturally mummified. And he was. Soon the well-to-do Palermo townspeople joined in and were buried in the catacombs.
The bodies were dried for eight months, washed with vinegar and preserved by arsenic baths and quick lime. Then they were dressed in the clothes they had previously provided. They were then displayed in the four corridors of the catacombs.
Rows and rows of bodies line the walls. Some are in individual niches others are in glass or wire netted cases stacked on top of the other. The bodies range from various stages of disintegration to almost lifelike.
The bodies in these corridors are divided into different categories: monks, priests, professors, virgins, men, women and children. Many of them are labelled with the date they died.
In the 18th century the people of Palermo went to the catacombs as a Sunday outing and paid regular visits to their deceased next-of-kin or friends. This way they familiarised themselves with their last resting place. During these visits they could see which people were going to keep them company when their day had come. They could also next to home they would like to be displayed and would try out niches to see if their body would fit.
In 1885 the Sicilian authorities banned the practice of mummification but it did not stop relatives coming to see if auntie Aurora was still in good shape or if she needed wiring together.
The last person to be mummified was a two-year old girl who died in 1920: Rosalia Lombarda. Her lifelike body is preserved in a glass case and she looks as if asleep.
Her mummification process was done with a series of injections. She was the only person who benefited from this method as the doctor who invented this new technique died before he could tell how it was done.
Convento dei Cappuccini can be visited daily from 9 am to noon and from 3 to 5 pm.
Take bus # 327 from Piazza Indipendeza or walk along Via Pindemonte and follow the sign posts. It is a thirty-minute walk.
A Cappuccini monk welcomes you at the entrance. The entrance fee is €2.
From journal Traveller in Palermo
Todmorden, England, United Kingdom
October 22, 2002
Getting there: from the main station start by getting a bus 109 to the Piazza del Independenza [near the Norman Palace.] Then get a 327 to Via Pindemonte and you will have a short walk. Entry was 2,500 lire in 2001.
The monastery had its own burial site in the catacombs under the church, then for some unimaginable reason the idea caught on and wealthy citizens would pay or make bequests to get themselves spaces. Apparently there are as many as 8000 skeletons in total, dressed up in garments they provided. They are arranged on either side of the corridors grinning down at you, segregated from each other by sex and profession.
In the 18th century [if not the 19th] it was common to visit dead friends or relatives - I imagine conversation was somewhat limited!
On the whole I was interested rather than shocked or horrified but the pinched little bodies of young children would soon have got to me. There is, however, one that I found particularly moving, signs leading you to a sealed cave where a two-year old was embalmed by a special secret process in 1920. The Rough Guide's claim that she looks as though she is asleep is a bit beyond what I would say - but only a bit. It really does not look as if she has been dead longer than many bodies awaiting final disposal in chapels of rest.
R.I.P. I am glad I went.
From journal Sicily in February