The Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, (also known as the crypt of the Capuchin Monastery or the cemetery of the Convent of the Capuchin Friars) has been described many ways…morbid, bone-chilling, disgusting, ghoulish, and even a macabre spectacle. And to some, it is certainly those things.
But to me, and many others this is a truly incredible place. A once in a lifetime must-go location.
In order to visit the dead, you’ll need to visit to Palermo Sicily and head to the modest church of Santa Maria della Pace, home of the Capuchin Monks.
From the outside, this simple building looks no different than any other. Step inside and follow a staircase down to the crypt and your views might change.
Wired to the walls, propped up against benches and tucked away in crypts created in the walls, nearly 8,000 mummies wait to greet you. This is the largest collection of mummies in the world and they have a history as deep and interesting as their more famous Egyptian counterparts.
In countries like the United States and Canada, death is hidden away. But here, the dead are only feet away, dressed in their Sunday best. There’s no glass, no casket, and nothing but an occasional sign or rope to remind you that this space is sacred.
As you traverse the dim corridors, you’ll find the dead arranged by profession, sex and social status. The oldest corridor is that of the Capuchin Friars. Other areas of the Crypt include that of women, children, families and professionals. One unique area is known as the Crucifix chapel and holds the bodies of young virgin women.
Within the collection of mummies, there are several that stand out for one reason or another. One sign informs us that we are looking at the oldest corpse to the monastery, a friar Silvestro da Gubbio. Date of death: Around 1597, first to be displayed in 1599.
Other mummies are simply famous for their looks. One of these is the “screaming man”. A mummy who appears to be screaming in agony. A great illustration of how gravity works on the facial features of a corpse propped up-right for hundreds of years.
Another mummy famous for her looks is the beautiful and life-like 2 year old Rosalia Lombardo. Mummified in 1920, Rosalia was the last mummies to ever be admitted to the crypt. Rosalia’s mummification was done by the famous embalmer, Alfredo Salafia. Salafia’s work was nearly perfect resulting in a mummy so perfect she was dubbed “Sleeping Beauty”. The formula for the “perfect” embalming was so good, that it stumped modern scientists.
The majority of the mummies in the Capuchin Catacombs however, are thought to have been successfully mummified through the dry and stable environment of the crypts.
The mummification process was a natural one for the most part. It involved placing the body in a room known as the colatoio where the internal organs were removed and bay leaves and/or straw were added in their place. The bodies were then placed on tubes made of terracotta in order to allow the fluids to drain and the body to dry and dehydrate. The colatoio, with its dry air was the optimal environment for natural mummification to occur. After sealing the colatoio for a year, the bodies were taken out, washed with vinegar and dressed in their best, to be displayed in the catacombs-forever.
An alternative mummification method employed by the Capuchin Monks was that of Arsenic Baths. This was the method employed during periods of epidemics to prevent the spread of disease.
While the process and place are in and of themselves interesting, you might be wondering…
But how did the Capuchin Crypt become a place where the dead were displayed in such a manner? What drove the Capuchin Monks to mummify both their own, and the general public?
Back in 1597 the Capuchin Monks found the mass grave that served as their cemetery, completely full and decided to begin construction on a new burial site. With the completion of the site in 1599, they went to excavate some of their brothers to move them to a more respectable home, and found 45 friars intact and recognizable having been naturally mummified.
They took this sign of God. Their brothers were to remain among them. The monks began purposefully mummifying their own dead and displaying them. This was a way to visit them, gain knowledge and worship God together with them. The monks believed that through mummification they still had access to the dead and the dead had access to God.
The news of the preserved bodies spread quickly and requests began flooding in from laypeople who also wanted to exist for eternity. At first they only took select individuals. Often those able to donate to the Capuchin cause. But after 1783 they began to take anyone who requested burial among them.
Photo Credit: The Cursed Traveler[/caption]
Even so, only the richest were in prominent positions. Their clothing regularly changed, they were displayed standing and sitting in areas easily accessible to the family. After all, the spirit of their loved one, could still reside here, so why not the absolute best? When the payment stopped the body would be tucked respectfully into a niche in the wall. This was where those who didn’t have the funds were kept; tucked into a niche, sometimes a few bodies deep, but still in a sacred and holy space. Still there for eternity.
With more and more demand, the catacomb grew until 1880 when the monks closed it with the exception of two admissions Vice-Consul of the United States in 1911 and 2 year old Rosalia Lombardo currently known as the world’s most beautiful mummy.
How To Visit The Capuchin Catacombs
When we were in Palermo we decided to do the 1 hour walk from our Bed And Breakfast. But if you’re not down to walk that far, there are other ways!
With public transportation
Directions From Central Station via bus as of 2021
Bus 109 o 318 up to Piazza Indipendenza. Walk along Via Cappuccini (15 minutes). At the first intersection, turn right on Via Pindemonte and then walk straight until you get to Piazza Cappuccini where the Church of Santa Maria della Pace and the Catacombs are located.
From Central Station via metro
Get off at Palazzo Reale-Orleans. Walk to the Royal Palace and cross Independence Square to get onto Via Cappuccini and take the first right, onto Corso Calatafimi. walk straight up to Piazza Cappuccini.
Or do what we did and throw the addres into your phone and follow the walking directions!
Admission price: 3 Euros.
Hours: 9-1 & 3-6 Everyday including Holidays.
Check the official website before heading out and maybe even call to make sure times haven’t changed 🙂 When we went during the times posted on their website they were closed and we had to wait an hour for them to reopen. Not a huge deal, but since we walked an hour to get there it could have been a huge bummer had it been closed the rest of the day!
Also, if you get there at the entrance time you’ll most likely get in mutch faster!
Some Interesting FAQ’s:
Do the Catacombs Smell?
No! You might assume the catacombs would smell, but there’s no trace of any particular odor.
What is written on the front door of the catacombs?
“You are what we were, we are what you will be. We will all die.”
Can Children Visit?
Yes! I think it’s good to make sure it won’t be frightening to the child, but at the same time it could be a good place to start a discussion of mortality. As an advocate for more death education and normilization I would definitely take my kids. We also saw young kids (maybe ages 5-10) visiting in total facination when we were there. I think kids are very open to learning and curious and it’s often the adults who make things a big deal. But, each child is also different.
Can I go with a Wheelchair?
Unfortunitely no. There are some steps and uneven ground that would make a wheelchair impossible