The Bone-Chilling Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks
Although it’s not the slightest bit rational, we humans possess the primal urge to be terrified. We love it. Why else would we pay money to watch horror films? Why visit haunted houses, or tell ghost stories? And in Palermo, a city of gorgeous churches and fascinating history, why should one of the top tourist attractions be the corpse-filled dungeon of the Catacombe dei Capuccini? What’s wrong with us?
Found on the outer limits of the city, the Capuchin catacombs hold the remains of over 8000 souls, their disembodied shells propped up against the walls or resting in open caskets. Down in the cold, dry basement of the monastery, the relentless march of decomposition takes its sweet time. It’s a gruesome display. Though some bodies have been reduced to skulls and bones, the majority of corpses are still rotting, and their half-decomposed husks are the stuff of nightmares.
Face skin slowly peeling off skulls. Corpses striking ghoulish poses as their bodies slowly fall apart. Hollowed-out faces with grotesque grimaces, teeth and even mustaches still intact. An infant in a tiny coffin, its face reduced to a pile of crinkled skin, like dry, crushed leaves. Monks dressed in hooded robes, staring at you from their eternal perch, and an entire army of the baby-undead. It isn’t the kind of horror which jumps out at you, and you scream and then laugh about it. No, the catacombs provide the long-lasting sense of dread which worsens with each step. Which becomes more unbearable the longer you remain.
The first monk was interred here in 1599, and his 400-year-old corpse is still on hand to greet visitors upon entrance. For centuries, the catacombs were strictly for the monks, but eventually opened to well-paying members of the public. For reasons that can only be understood as macabre, families actually wanted the corpses of their loved ones preserved and displayed, so that they could come to visit.
The standard method of preservation was to open up the corpse shortly after death and remove all the vital organs. Then the body would be stuffed with hay, and left in the sun to dry up. Many of the corpses have hay poking through their necks and falling out of holes in their skin. We can only pray that a herd of horses never finds its way to the catacombs, because that would be a truly unholy feeding frenzy.
The final soul to be interred here was the benefactor of a special conservation process designed by a specialist named Solafia. Baby Rosalia Lombardo died in 1920 at the age of two. Her body, which rests in a special room of the catacombs, resembles a life-size doll, complete with eyelashes and hair. Far from being sweet or a “miracle of science”, she might be the most horrendous resident of all. The one who, you just know, is going to open her eyes the moment you turn your back. Luckily for all of us, the good Doctor Solafia died before he could pass on his preservation method.
Because it’s such a unique and interesting place, the Capuchin Catacombs definitely warrant a visit. But those who are easily terrified might want to stay away. We brought Jürgen’s cousin, a sensible girl who normally refuses to visit even cemeteries. I’m not sure she’ll ever forgive us.
Photos and videos are strictly prohibited in the Catacombs, and we had to purchase permission at a rather hefty rate. Hence the watermarks. If you’d like to use these images, please get in touch.
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November 6, 2011 at 5:51 pm