Your average tourist in Palermo has no idea the Catacombs are even there, and would probably have zero desire to visit the moment they saw a few photographs. This ensures that the site isn’t too busy and generally means it manages to maintain a sombre, calm atmosphere most fitting for the Catacombs.
I was lucky enough to have the advice of my good friend Soile before visiting who had been to the Catacombs 10 years ago, and also the information from a few blogs read many years ago when my thirst for Sicily first began. Opening times in Sicily can be very varied so it’s always worth checking before you visit any attraction/restaurant.
The Catacombs stand on the site of an old church, which existed before the Capuchin friars arrived in Palermo. The birth of the Catacombs itself is an incredibly interesting one. Initially, the bodies of the deceased friars were simply covered in a shroud and placed in a mass pit beneath the altar, known as a Charnel House. As you might imagine, eventually as the order grew so did the number of monks dying, and the Charnel House became rather full. The decision was made that an underground cemetery would be excavated for future burials to solve the potential health risk being created by a bulging mass grave. One day when the Charnel House was opened to remove some of the bodies to the new space created for the dead, it was immediately noted that the unfortunate folk who were last deposited looked as if they had been dead for mere hours, not months. This miracle was declared fascinating and word soon spread about the miracle cemetery.
The decision was made to remove 40 of the best preserved bodies from the pit and display them in the catacombs of the church. This began what we see today as the Catacombs, lifeless figures propped up as if standing waiting endlessly for some important event, or recumbent as if they just slipped into slumber in their Sunday best.
Initially no lay burials were allowed in the Catacombs, but over time they did accept lay mummies, and increasingly so. People were willing to pay handsomely to have the honour of being displayed in the Catacombs. During the 16th and 17th Century when the Catacombs were at their height, the emphasis was on where your body lay after death. The thinking of the time was if you were laid to rest near a holy relic, inside an important church or somewhere with great religious significance you improved your standing in the afterlife. So the Catacombs was a very sought after place to spend your eternity.
However prepared you might think you are for seeing the Catacombs and its inhabitants with your own eyes, you won’t be. Nothing can quite prepare you for the huge range of different mummies lining the walls, all fully dressed in their best clothes, allowing them to maintain some of their humanity and personality throughout the ages. It makes them seem far more ‘real’ than a pile of bones, relatable. A little girl in a lace dress, curls still rolling from her head. A monk, hood hanging low, still looking in pious contemplation. Men in suits lined up as if for a job interview. Bishops still in their mitres and robes, having some eternal debate with one another on theology. Children, posing as if for a school photograph. It causes questions to flood the mind. Who were they? What did they do? How did they die? How did they look alive compared to now? All unanswerable.
The most shocking are probably those whose flesh still clings to their old bones. Tight and twisted with age. Their mouth hangs open in a silent, never ending scream. Lips peeled back to reveal the vastness of their gape in all its glory. Their flesh waxy and yellow like the pages of an old book. It is disintegrating in places and looks like it may just slide off the bone at any time. Their eyes mostly closed, or looking at you through huge hollow sockets. Some still have all their limbs, others have substitutes for what has fallen away, a hessian sack stuffed with straw to form an arm and stop a suit looking empty. White gloves as if about to handle some priceless museum piece, hiding the nothingness. The different rates of decay/preservation are fascinating to observe. Some are skeletal, while others cling to their former selves more vigorously, one man even still sporting his beard and eyebrows.
There was a quality I suppose quite puppet-like about many of the dead. They stand motionless, but as if about to burst into action, held up by string and wire, their clothes slightly surreal on their bodies, their form reduced to a bare structure with joints and bones laid bare. Thankfully nobody moved a muscle and the calm and quiet continued.
The Catacombs is a unique glimpse into a past when attitudes, beliefs and the world in general were so incredibly different. It is a close took into the face of death. And, understandably, not everyone likes what they see. But I have to admit I found it both fascinating, and moving. All these people, all these faces and lives. That no one remembers. That will be us all one day. And perhaps that's the reality people who fear the Catacombs shy away from.