The Hanging Dead of Palermo’s Catacombs

Let’s talk about dead people. Not all dead people, though — just the ones hanging on the walls of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily (in Italy). They are seriously among the most interesting “still around” dead folk on this planet, and you should go see them, too.

But first — let’s talk about them.

The Capuchin Catacombs got their start in 1599, when the (above-ground) Capuchin Monastery’s cemetery was outgrown. Unlike the catacombs in Paris, where bones and skulls are stacked in succession (making veritable walls out of human remains), Palermo’s version has far fewer people. And they’ve been hung from the walls, instead. Literally hung. And fully clothed, of course.

I could not invent this if I tried.

Hanging ladies (Capuchin Catacombs -- Palermo, Sicily)
Hanging Ladies 1 (Capuchin Catacombs — Palermo, Sicily)

It’s a sort of underground cemetery where bodies have been stored as some sort of loving memorandum to each unique individual, the suspended bodies lined like candlesticks. Or set in active positions and dressed in full, historic attire. All 4’10” of their dear corpses.

Originally, only the bodies of Brothers and Friars were allowed in (their corpses dried out on ceramic piping and washed with vinegar to preserve the remains). But over the centuries, it became a status symbol of the city’s well-to-do to be buried among holy men, and townsfolk soon began paying to be burried in the Catacombs. Inevitably, though, folks let this go to their heads, some people even requesting in their wills that their corpse’s clothing be “periodically changed.”

Of course the families had to pay for these “burial” services, and non-payment meant a body would be removed from the walls and put in a box — which you can still find lining the hallways, today.

The non-payers (Capuchin Catacombs -- Palermo, Sicily)
Jason, checking out the “non-payers” (Capuchin Catacombs — Palermo, Sicily)

Like any society, bodies reside in specific sections: Men, Women, Children. Priests & Monks. Professionals. Virgins. I imagine some sort of Medieval list you could choose from: “Yes, I’ll have the full hanging.”; “No, closer to the ground will do for me.”; “Throw me in with the other politicians!”; “Just a housewife, here.”; “What — the virgins? What kind of woman do you think I am?”

Families have always been allowed to visit their deceased, sometimes holding hands with their loved-one’s corpse in group prayer. Though this understandably happens less often these days, for who even remembers Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Aunt Isobella, anyway?

The freakish thing about it is that the hair, skin, and teeth of many is still intact, the clothes like shredded dinner napkins hanging from their bones.

You could reach out and touch the life still left in them (if you’re into that sort of thing…).

The hanging dead (Palermo, Sicily)
The hanging dead (Palermo, Sicily)
Hanging ladies 2 (Capuchin Catacombs -- Palermo, Sicily)
Hanging Ladies 2 (Capuchin Catacombs — Palermo, Sicily)

The entrance fee to get into the catacombs is dirt cheap (3€). Signs are everywhere, too, saying “No Photography,” but I am a selective rule follower (in a country where rules are optional, anyway). I’m not an unfeeling sociopath when it comes to the dead, but this awesome display of humanity had to be recorded — if not for me, at least so I could share it with you all. (Besides…film crews have already been all over this place.)

I felt like an historical anthropologist documenting the poses, trying to decode their professions and status (staii?) based on dress alone.

There’s Mrs. X and Ms. Y, hung from the wall in their best patterned silk frocks:

Some deceased lady, 1837. (Palermo, Sicily)
A deceased lady, 1837. (Palermo, Sicily)
Another fancily-dressed Palermo resident (Sicily)
Another fancily-dressed Palermo resident (Sicily)

And this monk…whose skin is still eerily intact:

Monk in a cassock (Palermo, Sicily)
Monk in a cassock (Palermo, Sicily)

These women, who appear to have been less socio-economically endowed, wearing dowdier garments:

Other ladies in the Capuchin Catacombs (Palermo, Sicily)
Other ladies in the Capuchin Catacombs (Palermo, Sicily)

Or this guy…who I like to imagine committed petty crimes his entire life but his well-connected family pulled strings all over town and he never saw the inside of a jail cell (this pose is his familial shame pushing to the surface):

Petty criminal from a wealthy family, perhaps? (Palermo, Sicily)
Petty criminal from a wealthy family, perhaps? (Palermo, Sicily)

Must I remind you, though: my photography was covert. So I wasn’t able to get evidence of everything jaw-dropping — like the child who was placed in a chair reading a book. Yes, a dead child sitting upright and reading an 18th century storybook.

Or of the very last “burial” performed in 1920, of a young girl named Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia. Today she lies like a wax dummy in a glass case, the daughter of someone well-known in the city, and slipped in as a favor (or result of a sizable payment) despite the fact that the Catacombs were officially closed to new bodies in 1880.

You’ll just have to go there to see these things for yourself.

Once Jason and I finally emerged from the underground lair, the warm evening air was a shock to the system. Witnessing all the life aboveground, as well, watching it just roll…on…by. As though there weren’t dead people hanging under the soles of everyone’s feet. As though none of us would ever die, and this moment would stretch on into forever…. The contrast was palpable.

Fruit-Veg stand outside the Capuchin Catacombs (Palermo, Sicily)
Fruit-Veg stand outside the Capuchin Catacombs (Palermo, Sicily)
Normal life on the streets aboveground (Palermo, Sicily)
Normal life on the streets aboveground (Palermo, Sicily)

Visiting the Capuchin Catacombs may make for a macabre afternoon, but it’s well worth it to step back into a period of time when relationships with the dead and death in general were more integral to everyday life. The whole thing is a testament to just how small each of us is, how brief our lives are, and the ways we all tend to grasp at some sort of legacy. A way not to be forgotten.

Plus, to witness the clothing, the poses, the sheer reverence for the people in these unadorned, underground halls, it’s something near divine. Ethereal. Like touching your hand to the sky (or the earth, whichever you wish).

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are open year-round, from 9 – 1 and 3 – 6, including holidays (excepting from late October to late March, when they are closed on Sunday afternoons). The catacombs are located at “Piazza Cappuccini,” at the church of “Santa Maria della Pace.”

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