The conservation status of the countless corpses exposed make the cemetery of the Convent of the Capuchin Friars, known as the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, one of the most impressive places to visit in the world. Through the doors of the Capuchin Monastery, which looks like any other building from the outside, visitors can descend into the large Capuchin catacombs. A macabre spectacle that brings out the uses, customs and traditions of the Palermo society from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The practice of mummification is an ancient tradition that has taken hold particularly in Sicily and the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are the highest expression of this tradition, because of the huge number of preserved human housed in them.
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. 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.”