In Sicily, where the relationship between the living and the dead has always been strong, the city of Palermo hosts one of the world’s more bizarre and morbid tourist attractions. Through the doors of the Capuchin Monastery, which looks like any other building from the outside, visitors can descend into the large Capuchin catacombs.
Pinned to the walls, sitting on benches and shelves and tucked away in open coffins are nearly 8,000 corpses, each one dressed in their Sunday best. In most of Western culture, the long-dead are generally kept out of sight, hidden from the living. Here, it is the exception. Nothing stands between the living and dead, except maybe a rope with a sign asking visitors to be respectful.
The ill-lit, musty catacombs have been separated into a few corridors, each one hosting a specific type of person. There is a room for religious figures, mainly those affiliated with the monastery, for professionals, such as doctors, and a room for women, virgins and infants. The oldest corpse in the macabre collection is that of Silvestro da Gubbio, a friar who passed in 1599.
It is believed that the particularly dry atmosphere allowed for the natural mummification of the bodies. Initially, priests would lay the dead on shelves and allow them to drip until they were completely depleted of bodily fluids. A full year later, the dried-out corpse would be rinsed with vinegar before being re-dressed in their best attire and sent to their proper room, to stand for eternity.
One of the most recent to be interred was Rosalia Lombardo, only two years old when she was embalmed in 1920. The embalming procedure has kept Rosalia looking so well preserved that she has been dubbed “Sleeping Beauty.” The embalming procedure, which was lost for decades, consists of “formalin to kill bacteria, alcohol to dry the body, glycerin to keep her from overdrying, salicylic acid to kill fungi, and the most important ingredient, zinc salts to give the body rigidity.”