If you’re looking for a dark tourist location in Palermo, Sicily you need to head to the Catacombs at the Capuchin Monastery.
This bizarre and somewhat morbid tourist attraction contains almost 8,000 corpses, most of which are dressed as if they were attending a wedding.
Visitors descend into the catacombs and are able to get up close and personal with the long-dead cadavers hanging from walls, sitting on benches and laying in open coffins.
History of the Capuchin Catacombs
As with many catacombs across the world, the reason Capuchin started to house corpses was that the local cemetery began to run out of space.
Excavation started in the late 16th century, with the first corpse addition coming in 1599 when Silvestro of Gubbio was mummified and placed into the catacombs.
The space was originally intended for dead friars of the Capuchin monastery, however, as time went on it became rather chique to be buried there.
Money talks of course and the resident brothers saw a business opportunity. They allowed local luminaries to be buried there in exchange for generous donations in their wills.
The fashion of being preserved in your best suit had also gained popularity, with the gentry even paying for the after-death service of having their corpse clothing routinely washed. (Priests meanwhile were dressed in their clerical vestments for eternal preservation).
Relatives would be allowed to visit the deceased and would also offer donations to the monastery in order to keep the corpse in its proper place. Failure to offer money would have the body put aside and out of sight at the back of the catacombs until payments resumed.
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The embalming process
The embalming process involved washing the body in formalin to kill the bacteria. It was then rubbed in alcohol and left to dehydrate on racks of ceramic pipes.
Glycerin was used so that the flesh would not completely dry out, with salicylic acid applied to prevent decomposing fungi to take hold.
Finally, zinc salts were added to give the body rigidity forevermore.
Where is the Capuchin Catacombs
- Address: Piazza Cappuccini, 1, Palermo 90129 PA.
- Phone: +39 091 652 7389
Capuchin Catacombs Today
The most recent corpse to be added to the Capuchin Catacombs belonged to Rosalia Lombardo. This was in 1920. Rosalia was only two years old when she was embalmed, and her well-preserved body has seen her dubbed as “Sleeping Beauty.”
As I mentioned above, approximately 8,000 corpses rest within the catacombs and tourists can get within a few feet of the ones on display.
Beyond the priests and rich-folk dressed in their best, there’s a “Chapel of the Virgins” area, where girls who were virgins at death wear faded white dresses. The inscription here states: “We follow the Lamb wherever he goes; we are virgins.”
A walk through the catacombs is also an education in Palermo high fashion from the 1600s to that last inclusion in the 1920s. As each generation chose their best attire to wear in death, we see the changing styles through the ages.
However, the corpses are clearly rather intense to look at (it is not an attraction for children).
Caved-in noses adorn crumpled faces with empty eye sockets. The mouth is very often wide-open in some kind of macabre death scream, a result of decomposing facial ligaments and gravity.
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Good to know
Taking photographs inside the catacombs is prohibited. Despite how close you can get to the preserved remains, iron grills have been installed to stop meddling tourists tampering or posing with the corpses.
The Catacombs of the Capuchins are classed as religious monuments, so you should dress appropriately. The dress code means shoulders should be covered.
The catacombs are closed on Sunday afternoon from late October to late March. The entrance ticket is 3 euros.
Featured Image: Sibeaster / Public domain