Have you ever wanted to see hundreds of human remains in different states of decomposition all displayed in the open so close you could touch them? If you have then you have two options; seek professional help or visit the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo.
Palermo’s Cappuchin catacombs, one of Italy’s more bizarre tourist attractions, are found just a little out of the historical centre of the city. With the local cemetery full to bursting the enterprising Cappuchin monks decided to open up the caves and tunnels underneath their church to house to surplus of corpses. In the spirit of no brother left behind they moved 45 recently buried of their order and upon uncovering them discovered that they had been naturally preserved, to the point that they could even recognise faces. The obvious choice was to then make relics of their brothers and display them as to show the wonder of God in having preserved them.
While originally a burial place solely for Monks the catacombs became a status symbol for wealthy Palermitans to preserve their bodies after death. Families would visit their dead family members, to change their clothes, remember them and even to hold hands and pray with them. Not my idea of a good day out. I think I’ll stick with the framed photos on the mantelpiece.
While there seems something a bit macabre about visiting a preserved Auntie Ethel and changing her clothes like a giant leathery death doll it was extremely popular, with over 9000 bodies finding their final resting place in the catacombs. Bodies were preserved and displayed prominently while the descendants continued to pay the church. When the bills weren’t paid then bodies were unceremoniously taken back to the cheap seats and upkeep on the bodies was halted.
These underground chambers are filled with dead bodies. And not behind glass, oh no, these guys hang forward from every wall right next to you. Human remains hang from the walls so close you could easily reach out and touch. Not that I would have been able to as my hands spent the majority of the time clasped to my mouth in shock and horror at the bodies that hung from the walls around me twisted and contorted in what looked like the throes and convulsions of a painful death. Hella creepy. I’m sure that when the bodies were first displayed they were all positioned in a way that gave them dignity and an appearance of peaceful rest. Disturbingly though, as the skin and bones of the bodies has dried, tightened or completely fallen away, a lot of the bodies are now twisted in unnatural and grotesque poses. Often with the skin of the face pulled back to create awful screaming mouths that are pure nightmare fuel.
All of the bodies have suffered time differently. Various different methods of preservation were used over the years. While some of the bodies hang forward as open mouthed skeletons others still have skin, hair and even eyelashes. There is one little girl, Rosalia, the most recent addition to the catacombs (1920) dubbed “the worlds most beautiful mummy” a tiny two year old who looks like she has just drifted off to sleep, whereas there are other bodies that are not much more than a pile of bones. Some are dressed in hessian sacks whereas others sport near perfect suits or wedding dresses. The catacombs are split into different sections with bodies divided into male, female, professional, Friars, virgins and pretty horrifically, kids and babies.
You can’t take photos in the catacombs. It’s expressly forbidden and there is an angry little man behind the cctv cameras that will amazingly sassily dress down individuals in a multitude of languages telling them to quit it with the cameras. “I can tell you in Italian, English or German, you, lady with the camera, don’t pretend you don’t understand” the lack of recording equipment is supposedly to preserve the dignity of the dead. I think that as soon as you open up a burial to the public and encourage them to buy expensive post cards of the bodies as well as t- shirts and fridge magnets then that argument is kind of invalid. Which is why me & Julian took great pleasure in avoiding the angry man and his CCTV cameras in some seriously ninja photo taking.
The cappuchin catacombs are around a 30 minute walk from the historical centre of Palermo. There is also a bus service but I wouldn’t recommend it. It takes almost as long as the walk and the extra five minutes you’d save on the bus isn’t worth having a guy almost sat on top of you while you both sweat buckets sat in the middle of the Palermo traffic.
Entry to the catacombs is €3 and it’s useful to know that the catacombs close daily between 12 and 3pm.
These catacombs are horrible, macabre, disturbing nightmare fuel and I would whole heartedly recommend that you visit them. Just maybe not alone and definitely not with the kind of douchebag friend who would find it fun to jump out on you and scare you.