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The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

Human beings have always had a fascination with death. In some cultures, the dead are never left alone, but continue to interact with the living. For instance, some set up ancestor cults to memorialise their dead forbearers. Others believe that the living can communicate with the dead via mediums. While these forms of interaction deal with the dead in their ethereal forms, the living also interact with the physical remains of the dead. One of the most common modes of this interaction is the preservation of dead bodies. Although the most famous mummies belong to the ancient Egyptian civilisation, they are certainly not the only ones that have been produced by mankind. Mummies have been made in different time periods by various cultures. One such example would be the mummies in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo ( The Catacombe dei Cappuccini ).

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are located in Sicily, Italy. In the 16 th century, the Capuchin monks of Palermo discovered that their catacombs contained a natural preservative that helped mummify their dead. One of their brethren, Brother Silvestro, was the first to be mummified. Apparently, he was a particularly holy monk, and the preservation of his body would have been useful in attracting pilgrims to Palermo. Apart from attracting pilgrims, it also attracted the attention of locals who wanted to be preserved in the same manner. Since then, over 8000 Sicilians of various walks of life have been mummified in the catacombs.

One of the most recent, and perhaps most famous mummy is that of a two year old girl, Rosalia Lombardo. Rosalia was placed in the catacombs when she died in 1920. Her body is so well preserved that she looks as if she were just sleeping in her glass coffin, hence her nickname “Sleeping Beauty”. The secret for her excellent state of preservation was revealed a few years ago, when a hand-written memoir of the embalmer, Alfredo Salafia, was discovered. This memoir recorded the chemicals that he injected into Rosalia’s blood. These chemicals were formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. It has been suggested that it was the zinc salts that were most responsible for Rosalia’s amazing state of preservation.  

Rosalia Lombardo, the “Sleeping Beauty” - Capuchin catacombs of Palermo

Rosalia Lombardo, the “Sleeping Beauty” of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo . Photo source: National Geographic News .

Apparently, the monks were able to maintain the catacombs through the donations of the relatives of the deceased. Each new body was first placed in a temporary niche, and later moved to a more permanent place. As long as the money entered the monks’ pockets, the body remained in its proper place. When the relatives stopped sending money, however, the body was placed aside on a shelf until payment was resumed. It seems that the catacombs were a pretty good way for the monks to earn their living.

What strikes me as ironic about the catacombs is that the Christian notions of life as a transitory phase, and the concept of equality before God have been thrown out of the window. Apparently, many of the people buried in the catacombs wrote wills that specified the kind of clothes they wanted to be buried in, and some even wanted to have their clothes changed over a period of time. It seems that even in death, these people seem to be unable to let go of their ephemeral mortal existence. Moreover, the social stratification is also clearly visible in the catacombs. There are separate sections for Priests, Monks, Men, Women, Virgins, Children and Professionals. The dead seem to cling on to the social status they held in life. Therefore, it seems that the catacombs reflect the vanity of those buried there, and their refusal to let go of mortal life.

French Colonel Enea DiGiuliano

French Colonel Enea DiGiuliano. He is still wearing his 1800's French Bourbon uniform. Photo source .

Perhaps this should force us to reflect on our own lives. By looking at the dead in those catacombs, we might realise that life is brief, and material wealth is nought in death. By doing so, we may come to a realisation of the important things in life, and value each living moment. 

Featured image: The Capuchin Catacombs. Photo source .

By Ḏḥwty

References

Hayes, H., 2010. Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/palermo-capuchin-catacombs
[Accessed 1 May 2014].

Lange, K., 2009. Lost "Sleeping Beauty" Mummy Formula Found. [Online]
Available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/01/090126-sicily-mummy.html
[Accessed 1 May 2014].

Powell, M., 2011. The Bone-Chilling Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks. [Online]
Available at: http://palermo.for91days.com/2011/11/06/the-bone-chilling-catacombs-of-the-capuchin-monks/
[Accessed 1 May 2014].

The World's Biggests, 2011. World's Bizzare Catacombs: Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Italy. [Online]
Available at: http://www.worldsbiggests.com/2011/02/worlds-bizarre-catacombs-capuchin.html
[Accessed 1 May 2014].

Ventura, P., 2000. Dressed for Eternity. [Online]
Available at: http://www.reportage.org/2000/MummiesPalermo/PagesMummiesP/paoloventura_links.html
[Accessed 1 May 2014].

Wikipedia, 2014. Catacombe dei Cappuccini. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombe_dei_Cappuccini
[Accessed 1 May 2014].

Comments

Great idea for those who plan to visit and learn about the underground part of Palermo. For the uninitiated the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo are also famous for the little girl Rosalia died approximately 94 years ago.
Briefly, the little girl was born in 1918 and died just after two years because of pneumonia. The corpse for his father's choice, lies to the catacombs and after all these years is almost intact.
After this brief introduction, I would advise more places to visit in Palermo as explained in this article:
tourofsicily . com / what-to-visit-to-palermo

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