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Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy

Updated on August 21, 2014

A long walk ...

One of many hallways lined with mummified corpses
One of many hallways lined with mummified corpses | Source
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Living Dead Museum

The Capuchin Catacombs, is a museum composed entirely of mummified people who once lived in Palermo, Italy - it is the living dead museum. They are dressed in the attire of their times, or the attire of their occupation and spend eternity as a history lesson for those still alive.

It is not known why some monastic orders of Capuchin monks preserved, dressed and displayed their dead. Some mythologies claim that it was purely by accident - the preserving of the bodies that is. And once it was discovered that some bodies did not decay, they were seen as virtuous proof of Gods grace that some people can escape bodily decay and from there it grew a life of it's own. Another mythology suggested the exact opposite that it showcased the triumph of death and vanity of life. A third mythology was much more realistic stating that it was a useful manner to raise money for monastic expenses and alms for the poor.

It is for all intents and purposes, a human library recording history as it passed, preserving it for future generations. Many view the catacombs as bizarre or macabre, but I think it's a fabulous and unique story of a citys' history. It is not focused on death or gruesome stories, it strikes me as a great way to honour the dead and ones ancestors.

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Would You ....

Would you go to the museum if given the chance?

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Hall of Men
Hall of Men | Source

The Design and Layout of the Catacombs

When you enter the chapel you may be surprised to find that the air is clean smelling not a whiff of musty or old or decay. The bodies are not strewn randomly about nor hanging in a grotesque manner. There is surprising order to the chaos of 8000 mummies.

The halls are divided into categories of Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. The Professionals Hall includes at least one American,officers and soldiers, writers, lawyers, priests, and others. Within these hallways (and side chapels) hanging from the walls, standing on ledges, laying down in a box or tucked into alcoves are the mummies.

Some are placed into a pose (perhaps by their own choice). In the chapel for infants there are children sitting propped up with mummified or skeletal infants in their arms - perhaps a sibling. Others are posed with other mummies to create a personalizing effect such as the mother and child pose, the two ladies gossiping and husband and wife.

Husband and Wife

Defying 'till death do us part'
Defying 'till death do us part' | Source

Brother Silvestro

The first occupant, Brother Silvestro da Gubbio
The first occupant, Brother Silvestro da Gubbio | Source

The Occupants

Regardless of how the idea came to light and it's history, it is still here today and serving a purpose.

The very first occupant of the catacombs was a monk who died in 1599. This tradition carried on until 1920 when the last occupant was interred, a little girl named Rosalia. By then nearly 8000 mummified corpses were interred and on display. The last monk to be interred was Brother Ricardo in 1871.

Rosalia Lombardo was only two years old when she died of pneumonia. Rosalias father asked a renowned embalmer to preserve her. Using relatively newer techniques he did as asked and the result was a little girl so well preserved that even today she looks like she is merely taking a nap.

I do not doubt that every mummified corpse here as a tale to tell, lessons to share and stories of a life lived fully. None of these mummies are anonymous empty wrappings. In many cases they left instructions in their wills of what to bury them in, how to hang and even changes of clothes over time.

Even after the mummification process, some cadavers are so old they are now skeletal. Mummification does not guarantee the stop of decay, as such, many mummies are wired back together as they fall apart. Sometimes the cadavers resemble screaming because the jaw slacked and needs to be reattached.

The walls and rooms are covered with clothed mummies - some officers and soldiers, some painters, plenty of monks, a number of teachers, lawyers. Male, female, old, young, rich or poor. A number of French and Italian military are among the corpses, an american and among the famous names are those of the painter Velasquez, the sculptors Filippo Pennino and Lorenzo Marabitti and surgeon Salvatore Manzella.

Rosalia Lombardo

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The Clothing

The clothing used to dressed the corpses represent the mummified bodies themselves. Some are wearing their occupational clothing, some their favourite outfits, others are dressed in full military attire.

Women in faded silk ball gowns of their era hang from the walls as if ready to step out and dance. Painters wearing the clothing they would have spent the bulk of their time in and showing their social stature. Men in crisp suits and wing tip style shoes looking incredibly rakish with their untouched in death hair and moustaches. The military men stand tall and proud in their brightly coloured if not a little faded clothing with hats in hand and dressed in full regalia.

Some clothing articles are vibrantly coloured, others fading. Some have toes peeking out of the top of shoes, a finger poking through a glove here and there. Some of my favourites are the couples in their wedding attire, defying the whole 'till death do us part'.

They were their own clothing or clothing appropriate to their era. In that way they teach history in a unique and dare I say bold, way.

Grandmothers Shawl

The vibrant coloured shawl is a deep contrast the the preserved yet nearly skeletal form underneath.
The vibrant coloured shawl is a deep contrast the the preserved yet nearly skeletal form underneath. | Source

Sisters? Cousins? Best Friends?

Sisters, maybe just best friends hanging out and keeping each other company
Sisters, maybe just best friends hanging out and keeping each other company | Source

Have Your Say

If someone you knew or loved, wanted to be interred and remembered in this fashion, as a mummy in a museum, would you honour that decision?

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Bartolomeo Megna

The one and only giant in the catacomb
The one and only giant in the catacomb | Source

Mother and child

A mother and child.
A mother and child. | Source

Last Monk Interred in 1871

A monk known as Brother Ricardo.
A monk known as Brother Ricardo. | Source
The slab used for starting the mummification process.
The slab used for starting the mummification process. | Source

The Mummification Process

The original (and still most common) method of mummification was that of dehydrating the bodies by the use of cells that resembled a barbecue pit. Known as strainers the cadaver stayed there for about eight months to a year naturally draining it's fluids and drying up a bit. The environment where the bodies were dehydrated had a perfect mix of coolness and humidity allowing the bodies to dry out slowly but not rot. Once ready they were removed, washed with vinegar, lodged with sweet smelling herbs and dressed for display.

During periods of epidemics the bodies were often first dipped in arsenic or lime.

The little girl Rosalia was the only one to be preserved differently than the mummifications. The method used on her was invented by a doctor in Palermo - Dr. Solafia (Salafia). Unfortunately when he died he took the secret of his method to the grave with him. All that was known for sure about his method was that it was based on injections.

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© 2014 LyttleTwoTwo

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  • Larry Rankin profile image

    Larry Rankin 21 months ago from Oklahoma

    Very creepy, but cool. Fascinating hub.

  • profile image

    Lee Cloak 2 years ago

    Fantastic, a really really good hub, very interesting, very well done, Thanks, voted up, Lee

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