Tuesday, 14 February 2012


The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo (also Catacombe dei Cappuccini or Catacombs of the Capuchins) are burial catacombs in Palermo, Sicily, southern Italy. Today they provide a somewhat macabre tourist attraction as well as an extraordinary historical record. Palermo's Capuchin monastery outgrew its original cemetery in the 16th century and monks began to excavate crypts below it. In 1599 they mummified one of their number, recently-dead brother Silvestro of Gubbio, and placed him into the catacombs.

More interments followed.The bodies were dehydrated on the racks of ceramic pipes in the catacombs and sometimes later washed with vinegar. Some of the bodies were embalmed and others enclosed in sealed glass cabinets. Monks were preserved with their everyday clothing and sometimes with ropes they had worn as a penance.

Originally the catacombs were intended only for the dead friars. However, in the following centuries it became a status symbol to be entombed into the Capuchin catacombs. In their wills, local luminaries would ask to be preserved in certain clothes, or even to have their clothes changed at regular intervals. Priests wore their clerical vestments, others were clothed according to contemporary fashion. Relatives would visit to pray for the deceased and also to maintain the body in a presentable condition. The catacombs were maintained through the donations of the relatives of the deceased. Each new body was placed in a temporary niche and later placed into a more permanent place. As long as the contributions continued, the body remained in its proper place but when the relatives did not send money any more, the body was put aside on a shelf until they resumed payment.

This was certainly one of the most interesting places we visited in Palermo and drove home the fact that many of our traditions regarding the disposal of the dead may be centuries old. I could not help but be reminded of Egyptian mummies and early Roman Christian catacombs when visiting here. Around the Mediterranean, the cult of the dead is very strongly marked by these age-old traditions some of which can be traced to ancient times. The photos below are graphic and not for the squeamish!

This post is part of the Taphophile Tragics meme hosted by Julie.

The entrance to the cemetery and catacombs
View of the cemetery, showing graves and mausolea
Another view of the cemetery with several imposing mausolea. The following photos are rather gruesome, so don't view them if you are squeamish!

One of the corridors in the catacombs
Two monks. Note the dwarf in the upper part of the niche
Niches containing the mummies of lay people
One of the most poignant mummies is that of Rosalia Lombardo, one of the three 20th century corpses in the Catacombs. This two-year-old girl was embalmed by Alfredo Salafia in 1920 and transported to the Capuchin crypt for temporary entombment. It has remained there until the present time


  1. Oh! Not for the faint hearted Nick - A whole different and interesting world ...I'm pleased to be reading this in the morning and not just before I go to sleep!

  2. This post makes me shudder. Not sure I would want to enter in here to see the mummies.

  3. I've always wanted to see something like this. I'm pretty sure I've visited one of the Roman catacombs but it did not contain bones. I didn't know there was one in Palermo.

  4. Amazing, yet morbid for sure...that little lass looks like she just died yesterday..

  5. Amazing info. I never knew these existed. It must have been a bit creepy visiting there.

  6. A couple of times already today, a post has taken away my power of speech. No mean feat!

    I would think that the atmophere within the catacombs could be cut with a knife, Nick. Stifling and stuffy come to mind.

    Looking at the bodies, and their varying states of decomposition, I think that there is a lack of respect. In my opinion, a lack of respect. I would not want my body to be on view as I decompose. Tantamount to someone watching me on the toilet somehow.

    Having said that, I tried to go to the catacombs beneath Paris but when I came up out of the metro (it is near Montparnesse somewhere) the queue snaked around for ever, and I am not one for queueing if there are more than two of us.

    I suspect I will keep my cemetery visits above ground from here on in.

    I love the fact that the body is moved is the ker-ching! is interrupted. Nothing wrong with the Capuchins!

    Engrossing post. Thank you.

  7. I saw a TV show on these catacombs recently. Discussing advances in the embalming process and how exquisite the work of the little girl.

  8. Oh God, I remember this now. I have been here too, but couldn't look at all those bodies. I left the church....

  9. Another place I have always wanted to visit. One day, hopefully.

    Herding Cats


  10. I had no idea that it was even legal to display bodies to the public in this way! And they seem to be nameless! Quite a disturbing sight and yet fascinating!

  11. Impressive photos! This is really amazing. Great post on the theme.

  12. wow! i never saw something like that. poor girl in the last pic....
    but i find it interesting..
    i only once saw in rome a catcomb where everything was made of bones. everything. cannot imagine how many corpses they needed for that..

  13. man o man, I'd love to visit this place. Those remains stacked behind the chain link fence? they look like they're melting into their shrouds. So bizarre. Oh well, when it comes to death, to each his own


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