Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

Palermo, Italy

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo (Catacombe dei Cappuccini) are burial catacombs. 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.

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 the contemporary fashion. Relatives would visit to pray for the deceased and also to maintain the body in presentable condition.

The last friar interred into the catacombs was Brother Riccardo in 1871 but other famous people were still interred. The catacombs were officially closed in 1880 but tourists continued to visit. The last burials are from the 1920s. The catacombs contain about 8000 corpses and 1252 mummies that line the walls. The halls are divided into categories: Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Some bodies are better preserved than others. Some are set in poses; for example, two children are sitting together in a rocking chair. The coffins were accessible to the families of the deceased so that on certain days the family could hold their hands and they could 'join' their family in prayer.

The catacombs are open to the public and taking photographs inside is supposedly prohibited, with prominent signs making it clear to visitors that photography is not allowed. Iron grills have been installed to prevent tourists tampering or posing with the corpses.

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