“Dad, can we go and see these?” We were on a half-term holiday in Sicily and my 13-year-old son was holding up a postcard he had just bought. It showed long corridors of grinning skeletons wearing what looked like grotesque fancy dress: dusty suits and decaying ballgowns from the 19th century.
A short car journey later we were in Palermo’s Piazza Cappuccini, buying our tickets for the Capuchin Catacombs from a cheerful friar selling postcards, rosaries and other souvenirs. Inside, the air felt cool and slightly moist. There was no smell. “Hug me if I’m scared,” my other, eight-year-old, son said, taking hold of my hand.
The catacombs consist of four corridors arranged in a square pattern, with side chapels running off them. Waiting to greet us at the entrance to the first corridor were row upon row of gaping, grinning skeletons, the majority tethered to the wall in a standing position. On most of the cadavers, the skin was astonishingly well preserved, if rather brown and leathered; on others, it seemed parchment-thin and leg bones poked out at ungainly angles. Here and there bony fingers protruded through decaying gloves, or toes through the ends of elegant-looking shoes. Many of the cadavers wearing monks’ cowls had heavy ropes coiled around their necks, disconcertingly, as if they had suffered death by hanging. We learnt later that this was a self-chosen symbol of penance.
The corridors were segregated between the religious and the worldly. There was a women’s corridor and a side chapel was devoted to those who died virgins. In a small chapel for infants, children sat propped up like dead dolls, one cradling a skeleton, perhaps a sibling, in its lap.
No one really knows why the cult of preserving and dressing the dead caught on in Sicily more than elsewhere – the island’s other famous mummy sites are at Savoca and Piraino – or indeed why the Capuchins, of all the monastic orders, practised mummification to such an elaborate degree. One theory is that it was considered a proof of God’s miraculous grace that certain virtuous souls could escape bodily decay; another, which rather contradicts the first, suggests that it demonstrated the triumph of death and the vanity of worldly possessions; a third that it was a useful way of raising money to fund monastic expenses and provide alms for the poor.
However it began – the first mummy in the catacomb is a monk, Silvestro da Gubbio, who died in 1599 – the practice soon established itself and, until it was discontinued in 1920, more than 8,000 people chose to be buried here. To prepare for mummification, bodies would be laid on stone slats in the catacombs for eight months to a year to allow fluids to drain away. The porous limestone of the caverns, together with just the right combination of coolness and humidity, meant that the bodies didn’t rot or turn to dust but slowly dried out. They were then washed with vinegar, lodged with sweet-smelling herbs, dressed and put on display.
The last corpse to be buried here was that of Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia aged two. Her father asked Alfredo Salafia, a noted embalmer, to preserve her. With curls still tied up in a big yellow silk bow, eyes closed and eyelashes perfectly preserved, she looked as if she had just fallen asleep at a party and needed to be taken home.
All around her, grown-up mummies were dressed to dance. The women wore fading silk ballgowns and shawls with intricate brocades, the men had three-piece suits with wing-collared shirts and bow ties. There were soldiers in tricorn hats and full regalia. To my right reclined a man in a dandyish suit, clutching a cane. His brownish skin was stretched tight over high cheekbones but his hair and fine moustache were untouched by death. He resembled the young, rakish-looking Puccini.
There was nothing anonymous about these dead. Many of them wrote wills specifying the clothes in which they wished to be buried and some even asked to have their outfits changed at regular intervals.
I was suddenly struck by one possible reason why Sicily favoured this tradition. It seemed close in spirit to the ancestor worship of the ancient Greeks and Romans who occupied the island for centuries. For Sicily’s pagan ancestors, death was an unqualified evil and every family understood the duty to tend the memory of its antecedents. This was the pagan tradition that seemed to have slipped under the radar of the Catholic inquisition and made itself at home here. If only the dead could speak, I thought, they might tell us.