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?

Dead Mummies Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks in Palermo

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.

Mummies of Palermo, Sicily

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 into the catacombs, because that would be a truly unholy feeding frenzy.

Rosalia Lombardo mummy in glass coffin in Palermo, Italy

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.

This Post Has 75 Comments

  1. Isabella Davis

    Amazing preservation on some of these fellows,but for some odd reason I’m not quite as hungry as I was before I decided to view these images,thanks for sharing this great information as always fellows, best wishes in your travels.Regards, IsaBella

  2. Francesco

    To me the most terrifying thing about Palermo’s catacombs has always been the contrast between the exposed corpses and the neon-lights. It gives me the idea that technology goes forward anyway and that materialism triumphs no matter what. Brrrrr.

  3. Chic Soufflé

    Terrifying, yet fascinating! The hanging monks are a nice touch… I can’t believe how many corpses are down there! 

  4. Hummus

    Umm, on this note goodnight all… and sleep tight.

  5. Becky

    Oh my gosh! I was horrified but couldn’t bring myself to stop scrolling…

  6. Joseph Barbaccia

    I love these images. I’d die just to be able to be there one day.  : )

  7. TC

    Not so much mummification as being left there to rot!? ICK!!!!

  8. brenda

    muy buenas las fotos aunque algo intrigantes de como es que terminaron ahi todos esos cuerpos. como dice la pagina hay que tener valor como para ir a verlo en vivo , yo por ahora veo las fotos y ni me acerco al lugar.

  9. PATPL

    Go there at the night. That must be scary and amazing 

  10. Igor

    At least theyre not walking down my street and looking in through my window.

    1. C. Marquez

      .Been there, really amazing….”and frightening

  11. tim

    amazing loved the documentry on the girl in the glass case ,will be visting at some point in my life time

  12. Marcello

    If I am not wrong, the whole sense of that display was to remind the visitors and the monks the old saying that humans are only passing by on the earth,that we all are turning into dust and that we must concentrate on the afterlife rather than on this one…

    1. Lynn Vecchiarelli

      I read your comment about the Capucin Catacoms of Palemo and felt this was the way in which the Catacombs should be presented and thought of. I would love to visit and I think, for me, this would be an emotional and very spiritual event. I do not as some others commented, find it ghoulish. Rather that sounds somewhat disrespectful. My heart goes out to the children most especially as they hadn’t the chance to live their life but then, I suspect this was all in keeping with the Lord’s Plan…

      1. Val

        There is a beautiful chapel there as well. The old organ was being tuned when I visited and the whole scenario was just magnificent. That is definitely a must visit!

  13. cuppycakes

    awww…the young baby just touched my heart :'(

  14. Jacqui

    Hi I missed this docmentary about the catacombs of Palermo when and where can I watch it on my lap top

  15. Denise

    Visited here in July 2012, fascinating place, if in Palermo do not miss it! It is a place like no other, didnt find it scary but dont take any photos because a voice from above will tell you off and remind you that the bodies were once alive like you and one day you will be dead like them!

    1. Penti

      Is that so? Are you referring to recorded messages?

  16. saly


  17. I’ve been to the catacombs many times, and as bizarre as it may be, I highly recommend it (unless of course you have small children).  The pictures are fantastic.  I’m surprised they let you do them.  I’ve tried a couple of times.  You must have really paid a “hefty” price, but well worth it.Larry

  18. Tom Pointon

    Your superb photos persuaded me to visit. This is like walking in to some seventies exploitation horror. By far the most spooky is the little girl who looks as if she’s sleeping and abut to wake up…One bit of advice – the 327 bus which goes from Piazza Independencia will drop you almost at the door. The 389 or 109 buses go from the rail station to Piazza Independencia. It can be a little tricky to find but I asked a couple of locals and even not being able to speak Italian I could follow their directions.It is walkable from the centre if you’re fit.Not to be missed if you’re ever in Palermo.

  19. ian wilkinson

    Stunning photos and very emotive. How much did it cost you to persuade the monks to allow you access to photograph? as they are most insistent on no film and no photography. Well done!

    1. Juergen

      Easy way out … we had to pay for a photo permission. But at the end it was def. worth it!

  20. Barb Armo

    Not really scary, but fascinating. Probably because MOST of us don’t often see a dead body, particularly one that lived so long ago. I once saw a documentary from Italy where the family would periodically pull their loved ones out of the mausoleum wall and rearrange the bones into elaborate patterns. Guess they’re just not very squeamish on the subject of death. Perhaps the whole process is meant to desensitize one. A very graphic reminder that it will one day be YOU!

  21. midnitepixie

    My father was born near Palermo, Sicily, so Ive been here several times. ..first time at 12. I was fascinated…!! Took my children in 2010 (8 and 10) they too loved it. I’d say the images are far more scary than the actual visit…and it’s not nearly as “horrendous” as the blogger makes it out to be. In fact, it was considered an honor and prestigious to be buried here…and for years, the relatives of the dead paid their respects (and the upkeep) of this underground church tomb. The mummified child left an impression on me at a young age…and remarkably, has not changed one bit since I first saw her over 30 years ago. I recommend visiting the catacombs if you ever have the chance to visit Sicily…not for it’s macabre appearance, but for the appreciation of the ancient rituals and the respect the Sicilains had for their dead.

    1. Feros Ferio

      I guess it wouldn’t bother the Adams Family. Lol

  22. midnitepixie

    most of these photos shown are postcards…Postcards which are for sale within the church. in 1983, I recall I was able to take photos… however photos are now prohibited (at least they were when I last visited in 2010 and 2011) due to preservation of the corpses.

    1. Juergen

      Thank you for the comments … the pictures here shown are taken by me. We obtained a special and rare permission to take these photos. Glad you enjoyed them.

  23. Cathi

    I found these photos absolutely fascinating! I’d love to visit the Catacombs someday in the future but as I can’t afford to travel anywhere, I can’t see that happening, so thank you for taking these photos and sharing them with us. I’ve always been interested in this sort of thing for some strange reason and even though I’d find it a bit eerie if I did visit and witness this for myself, I know it would enlighten me not frighten me.

  24. David

    What a beautiful place. What better way to honor these souls. I have to go visit someday soon. 

  25. Tameka

    I have actually been there, while I was stationed at NAS Sigonella. It was gruesome, but fascinating at the same time! A must see if your travels should ever take you in that direction!!! 🙂

  26. Linda Caminiti

    In the mountains above Sorrento there is a village where a scene from the Godfather Part 2 was filmed.  It’s the one where Michael proposes to Appolonia. There is a church and convent run by, I can’t remember, Filopino nuns, I think.  Anyway, they have a similar Capuchin crypt but not nearly as large.  

  27. Sparky

    I believe I would bring a very well made breathing mask before going into that place as the dust contains the skin and bone of the bodies, that said it’s a look into the past as no other words can describe how these people must’ve lived, I’m wondering what did the children die of ? thanks for the photos.

  28. julia

    I think that they should let them rest in peace.

  29. Zen

    I was fascinated by the display. The ropes around the neck of the Capuchin monks made me feel of their faithfulness even unto death. If given a chance, would visit again.

  30. Nobody

    Does no one else think that this is incredibly disrespectful to the dead? I know I, personally, wouldn’t like to be put on display for the world to see when I die. It’s morbid and, quite frankly, shows these once very alive people the smallest amount of respect imaginable. 

    1. Your name

      I went to the similar place in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini in Rome. The monks (and apparently others of those times) did not think in that ‘modern’ way you refer to. I don’t know, but I imagined that the monks of this order tended to think more along the lines of sacrifice: they spend not only their whole lives in service to their fellow man and god, but would be happy that any use at all could still be made of their bodies after life – not just as reminders that we will all die, but even at least in decoration; even as furniture! I imagine that after a lifetime of sacrifice, they may have noticed that that level of sacrifice is hard for the average person to understand; hence… this result. As for the kids? The parents may have thought of that as a good aspiration for that child that was no longer alive, and could no longer ‘aspire’ in other than a heavenly sense; there may be a fortunate feeling that, in this small way, their child gets to be of use – in a way ‘still alive’ – centuries after their very short lives. I don’t know what exactly they thought at the time, other than the core bit of ‘indeed we will all die soon enough’, the rest I have guessed, and would be curious to know how close it comes.
      Visiting was a bittersweet experience. Feelings, impressions, and thoughts that may only be possible by having the experience yourself. I too thought my reaction would be more one of shock or disgust, but really it ranged from interest to feeling brought back to reality to appreciation, even awe. Appreciation for the work my body does without me, the upkeep – and when that upkeep stops, it stops. And quickly-to-slowly then comes undone.
      These folks were able to communicate with me in this symbolic way long after their deaths, and without words. Rather amazing. Irre.

  31. Tonguepunchinfartboxes

    I bet it smells pungent as hell down their….and it’s prolly haunted as shit, no thank you

  32. James H. Humphrey

    I was there in the winter of ’63.  I had my 8mm and took film of much of this.  One thing that stands out as I was looking at these pictures, it is not the way it was.  It has been cleaned and many bodies moved and displayed.  Rosalia Lombardo has been totally relocated along with the other children and placed where they are now.  Lighting has been updated.  I know 50 years is a long time ago but my memory is not that bad.  Also the tags on the deceased have been added, I would suppose for catalog and documentation as much as possible.  When I first saw Rosalia’s burial coffin, the glass was cracked, I see that it has been replaced and resealed, when???  There was not a restriction then on filming and taking pictures, many others did as I, filming.  There were piles and piles of bones and skulls, we were told as time passed and the remains fell from the walls that they would be gathered and placed into the bone piles also as space was required, old ones removed, replaced by newly deceased although there were no new ones when I was there, I think Rosalia was one of the last to be placed into the catacombs.  She was very well preserved, looking as if she would awaken at any time.  Her skin was bright, full of color and shiney, only her eyes were slightly sunken.  Also for those concerned, I did not detect any odor, just dry.  I’m sure there was dust in the air from, well every thing but, it was not noticeable. It was not errie (to me) but there was a feeling of, well quiteness and respect.  Will I ever return, rather doubtfull but my Grand daughter insists that I take her to Italy, maybe?

  33. Sherman


  34. Sean

    Scary but great photos! I particularly like the way you captured the capuchin monks. My wife had to go away as she couldn’t stand watching this horrific photos. We would love to visit the place and experience the same feeling. Are there any hotels around the place?

  35. Michael Sandon

    If you do not mind me asking, how do you go about getting the permission for photos, and what is the cost?  Your photos are excellent.  Thanks!

    1. Mike Powell

      You have to ask the guard about the permissions, and the current price. I think the price depends on the project and the intended use of the photos. I’m not sure if there’s a phone number — we actually drove out there a week before we wanted to take the pictures, and asked in person.

  36. Pauline Head

    Get up early and wear comfortable shoes, Also get back to your hotel early as the island of Sicily shuts the water off at arounnd 7pm

  37. Pauline Head

    Hello, me again. Another thing I forgot to mention was to bring some tissues. When you the area where the babies and children are it gets pretty emotional.

  38. Cesar Wilson

    I was there May 2008.  The temperature was dry and cool.  It was very peaceful and not scary as some may think because of the pictures.  I wasn’t allowed to take pictures.  Would like to visit again.      

  39. Ed Smith

    I visited the Capuchin catacombs in 1974.A young priest directed me behind the altar pointing to a wooden door beyond.I offered money but he refused pointing to my barefeet . I think he thought I was poor.I was hot. Descending down into the Abyss I was greeted by Da Gubbio who has stood sentinel since 15th October 1599. Passing by long dead priests,monks,cardinals and bishops some staring skyward others limp head hanging low.In their detailed finery fretwork and lace.Some looked back at me with bemused questioning glance.The question of life and death silently posed.The tank was a vast cavernous place with layers and tiers of death stacked upon high. At one point I smelt the sweetest smell of aromatic tobacco.The thought crossed my mind that a cardinal had nipped out the back to relieve his cramp and pull a pipe.Some corridors later I heard whispers and a voice ,looking around the corner I found a room where a elderly gentleman was sitting relaxed,smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper .He had a flask of coffee and was relaying the news to a loved one long dead but much alive in his heart.He nodded and smiled.I slowly withdraw not wanting to interupt such a delicate moment.I saw 1000,s of people that day .It was comforting not macabre ,horrific or sad.It was so to speak the culmination of LIFE.Life celebrated.Life questioned.Life granted. One can not leave without mentioning that beautiful child Roselina Lombardo ,her untimely death of influenza during the epidemic which took 18 million or more worldwide between 1918-1920.The efforts of her father General Lombardo to have her memory preserved so that the family might visit.There is a photo of him amongst the deceased in a green military uniform with his napolean styled black hat .Apparently he died in his late 50ties. I spent hours here.It is great to see photos to recall this amazing place.Don’t try telling your friend and family about this wonderful place of refuge that won’t believe you.I hope the days never comes where cameras are allowed in as a regular thing.As a mark of respect and as a time to reflex it remains special in our thoughts we don’t nervously click away our time. I

  40. Sarah

    I get claustrophobic but I was OK here because the chambers are quite big & airy. I, too, found the neon lights a 2st Century intrusion. What impressed me the most were the clothes the dead are wearing. Remember the soldier on the Quality Street tin, with the tall hat and the stripes going across his chest? There are men dressed like that, for example. An unmissable experience if you are in Palermo. But I was very glad to get out of there into the sunshine.

  41. Lash

    Went to the tombs today and got a little teary eyed and felt sad that so many bodies are on display for all to see. But I also found the entire experience interesting as you get to see how the human body is in decay close up..

    Would truly recommend a visit…but try to get there closer to opening hours as it’s in middle of nowhere….

  42. Christina

    What are the names of the children in the caskets next to Rosalie, and of the one little one that seems to be pointing her /his finger at the camera? I’m writing a horror novel and I want to try and incorporate them into my book.

  43. Tamara

    I absolutely love these photos. Like another lady had said I will probably never be able to visit there so the photos are a wonderful look inside this special place. Everyone is completely entitled to there opinion but I don’t understand why people would call this scary,gruesome or any of that. I truly believe that the catacombs are a celebration of life and they are being remembered in death. Death is enevitible so what is so scary about it? I would be honored to have hundreds of people want to come and pay there respects and take photos of which have never met me. The fact of being able to see these people so many years after there death is amazing to me. This is definitly not something you are able to see everyday. I have always been intrigued by all aspects of death and the unknown. We are used to burying our loved one and that’s it that’s all. To be able to see that person pretty much forever after there passing is awesome to me. To see the process the body goes thru over the years is fascinating. If it would ever be possible to go there I would love to have the chance we will see. Just like the people in the catacombs I guess only time will tell..

    1. Annabelle

      I agree

  44. Jeff Brewer

    Great video, story and pictures. It brings back memories of when I visited in June 1992. When I tell folk about this place they can hardly believe such a place exists!

  45. BÉNITO

    réjouissez vous car ce n’est que votre propre mort qu’il est question ici.ce n’est qu’une question de temps!

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