A few days ago I made a video talking about one of my favorite places on earth… the Capuchin Catacombs (or Crypt). The catacombs are located in Palermo Sicily and are famous for being the largest collection of mummies in the world (sorry Egypt). On perfectly mummified little girl named Rosalia Lombardo has become the number one attraction at this sacred site
The Capuchin Catacombs was founded in the 16th century when monks were forced to create a crypt below the original cemetery because they had ran out of room to put the bodies.
In 1599, one of their beloved brothers Silvestro of Gubbio died and out of grief they decided to mummify him so that they could keep his physical body with them.
The process of mummifying their brother consisted of placing him on a dehydration rack and leaving him there for several months before washing his body in vinegar, redressing him in his robes and ropes he had worn as penance, and placing him in a central place in the new underground crypt. His brothers could then visit him and pray with him, much like they had done in his life.
This started a tradition of other monks, nuns and priests being mummified and placed in the crypt in areas where they could still be visited, prayed with, an on occasion-have their hands held by their loved ones.
While the catacombs were intended only for the friars, lay people began to request to be mummified and placed in the crypt for their loved ones to visit them. An entrepreneurial monk took hold of this demand and created a system where non-friars could be mummified and placed in niches in the catacombs on the condition that the church received donations both in their life and death. If at any point the relatives of the deceased stopped paying the donation, the body would be removed from the desirable niche and placed on a shelf until the payment was resumed.
Now, because it was an expensive proposition to be mummified and displayed in the catacombs, it became a symbol of status and wealth. Some of the professionals and other local luminaries would request their best outfit to be displayed with them- in some cases, they would even request their clothing to be changed to the season or to the fashion of the day.
The relatives of the dead would sometimes take on the duty of keeping the deceased looking presentable to the public, but in other cases it was a duty handed off to the monks. However, relatives were known to visit their loved ones just for the sake of visiting them, sitting with them, holding their hands, and praying with them.
The last monk to be mummified was Brother Riccardo in 1871, but some wealthy people continued to request burial in the catacombs up until 1880. While the monks stopped mummifying people in the 80s, they still allowed some already mummified people to join their ranks until the 1920s. One of these, was Rosalia Lombardo.
Rosalia was a two year old who had died from an pneumonia on December 6th, 1920. Her father Mario Lombardo, was so full of grief upon her dying, that he reached out to Alfredo Salafia, a well known embalmer and had her preserved forever. He then took her body to the Capuchin Catacombs and asked if she could be placed there as her final resting place. The church agreed to take her, and she was nearly the last body to ever be admitted.
What’s made Rosalia the most famous mummy though, is the fact that she is so life-like and so intact. Alfredo Salafia’s perfect mixture of embalming fluids kept Rosalia so complete that recent CAT scans show even her organs are still intact.
More recently, Rosalia caused quite the commotion when scientists confirmed that the local rumors that she still sometimes blinks, are true. According to these scientists who set up cameras to monitor her eyes, the change in humidity in the catacombs results in her opening and closing her eyes throughout the day. The cameras also caught the two year old’s eyes, perfectly blue and perfectly still intact.
Besides Rosalia, the catacombs contain 8000 corpses and 1252 mummies, making it the largest collection of mummies in the world.
What’s the experience like?
While the outside of the catacombs is quite plain, the inside is more jarring than you might think.
As you walk in, your greeted by bodies lining both walls. Some of them are hanging, having been wired onto the wall, and others are stacked in piles. One of the most shocking things for me was the look of agony on their faces. Now the mummies aren’t actually in pain (obviously), but being wired to a wall upright for 1,000 years causes the skin and mouth to drop downwards creating the illusion of screaming.
As you walk further into the crypt, you’ll notice the mummies are segregated into monks, priests and nuns, men women and children. Most of the mummies are either displayed or on shelf, but some, especially the kids and infants are set in poses or have been put into scenes. One that I remember was a brother and sister and with their favorite toys sitting together on a chair.
While many people might find The Capuchin Catacombs a bit morbid, I would highly recommend visiting it. After all, the worst thing it could do is remind you of just how short life is, and how mortal you are.