The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo and Their Most Famous Mummy
Human beings have always had a fascination with death. In some cultures, the dead are never left alone, but continue to interact with the living. For instance, some set up ancestor cults to memorialize their dead forebears. Others believe that the living can communicate with the dead via mediums. While these forms of interaction deal with the dead in their ethereal forms, the living also interact with the physical remains of the dead. One of the most common modes of this interaction is the preservation of dead bodies.
Although the most famous mummies belong to the ancient Egyptian civilization, they are certainly not the only ones that have been produced by mankind. Mummies have been made in different time periods by various cultures. One fascinating location where people still marvel at mummies is the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo ( Catacombe dei Cappuccini ).
Origins of the Capuchin Catacombs
The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are in Sicily, Italy. In the 16th century, the Capuchin monks of Palermo discovered that their catacombs contained a natural preservative that helped mummify the dead. One of their brethren, Brother Silvestro, was the first to be mummified.
Inside the Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo. ( toshket /Adobe Stock)
Apparently, he was a particularly holy monk, and the preservation of his body would have been useful in attracting pilgrims to Palermo. Apart from attracting pilgrims, it also attracted the attention of locals who wanted to be preserved in the same manner. Since then, over 8000 Sicilians of various walks of life have been mummified in the catacombs.
Sleeping Beauty – The Catacombs’ Most Famous Resident
One of the most recent, and perhaps most famous mummies is that of a two-year-old girl, Rosalia Lombardo. Rosalia was placed in the catacombs when she died in 1920. Her body is so well-preserved that she looks as if she were just sleeping in her glass coffin, hence her nickname “Sleeping Beauty.”
The secret for her excellent state of preservation was revealed a few years ago, when a hand-written memoir of the embalmer, Alfredo Salafia, was discovered. This memoir recorded the chemicals that he injected into Rosalia’s blood. These chemicals were formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. It has been suggested that it was the zinc salts that have been the most responsible for maintaining Rosalia’s amazing state of preservation.
Rosalia Lombardo, the “Sleeping Beauty” of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. ( Public Domain )
Apparently, the monks were able to maintain the catacombs through the donations of the relatives of the deceased. Each new body was first placed in a temporary niche, and later moved to a more permanent place. As long as the money entered the monks’ pockets, the body remained in its proper place. When the relatives stopped sending money, however, the body was placed aside on a shelf until payment was resumed. It seems that the catacombs were a surprisingly effective way for the monks to earn their living.
Research into the Stories of Mummified Children
In December 2021, a team of researchers will begin the first comprehensive study of the child mummies in the Capuchin Catacombs. Let by Dr. Kirsty Squires, Associate Professor of Bioarchaeology at Staffordshire University, the team plans to discover why the children were mummified and what their lives may have been like. Dr. Squires further explained the project goals in a Staffordshire University press release:
“Given that this funerary rite was mainly reserved for adults, we want to understand why the children were mummified. We have a fairly good idea that they were from the upper ranks of society but we don’t know much more about juvenile health, development, or identity during this period. This project will provide essential data to determine which children were afforded mummification and to put this into a broader context.”
The university reports that the researchers will use “non-invasive methods – as opposed to destructive techniques such as autopsy – to analyse the remains of forty-one mummified children from the 19th century.” These non-invasive methods include the use of portable x-ray units to capture digital images (radiographs) of each child from head to toe.
The researchers will use non-invasive methods to capture digital images of each child from head to toe. (Carlo Vannini/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
By using the radiographs, the team hopes to discover the age, sex, and any possible pathological or traumatic lesions the children suffered from. This information can also provide insight on the environment and living conditions of the children, which the researchers can compare to the lives of other children who were not mummified but lived in Palermo during the same period. As Dr. Squires says:
“This is a really exciting opportunity to learn more about life in late modern Sicily. There is currently limited information about the mummification of children in the Catacombs meaning there is little context to the display of juvenile mummies. Our research will help tourists and the wider public learn more about the children housed in the Catacombs and the cultural significance of this mortuary rite.”
Finally, the two-year project will also provide scholars with illustrations of the juvenile mummies, “as photography is prohibited in the Catacombs and the subject matter is highly sensitive.” Artist Eduardo Hernandez will create those illustrations, which will be shared in “journal articles, lectures, a blog and teaching packs translated into both Italian and English,” according to the university’s press release.
Reflecting on the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
Finally, what strikes me as ironic about the catacombs is that the Christian notions of life as a transitory phase, and the concept of equality before God have been thrown out of the window. Apparently, many of the people buried in the catacombs wrote wills that specified the kind of clothes they wanted to be buried in, and some even wanted to have their clothes changed over time.
It seems that even in death, these people have been unable to let go of their ephemeral mortal existence. Moreover, social stratification is also clearly visible in the catacombs. There are separate sections for priests, monks, men, women, virgins, children, and professionals. The dead seem to cling on to the social status they held in life. Therefore, it seems that the catacombs reflect the vanity of those buried there, and their refusal to let go of mortal life.
Perhaps this should force us to reflect on our own lives. By looking at the dead in those catacombs, we might realize that life is brief, and material wealth is naught in death. By doing so, we may realize the important things in life, and value each living moment.