In Palermo, Sicily, southern Italy you can find one of the most gruesome sites you might have the opportunity to visit in your lifetime: catacombs lined with thousands of mummified humans preserved and still wearing the clothing they once wore while attending to the daily tasks of life. The scent of mold, human dust, rotting fabric, and spices permeates the dark, dank air.
For four centuries, deceased human beings were placed in the burial chambers of the catacombs. The oldest mummy to be found in the underground burial chamber is that of Silvestro da Gubbio, a monk who died in 1599. As the cemetery at the nearby monastery had become full, the monks decided to start excavating crypts below the cemetery. The popular belief at that time was that bodies should be preserved for the coming resurrection.
Father Calogero Peri, current keeper of the underground house of the dead said, “When they first built this monastery, one of the problems that came up was what to do with the dead. They developed the most successful process of mummification in Palermo.”
The first people to be buried in the catacombs were the monks from the monastery, and then dignitaries and patrons of the church were also placed there. Eventually whoever could pay to put their loved ones in the cold dank caverns was allowed access.
Initially, it is believed there were about 8,000 mummies in the catacombs. Many were destroyed during WWII bombings, and it is rumored that American troops took some of the mummies with them as souvenirs.
The mummies are arranged by class, gender, profession, and age. There are lawyers, doctors, writers, men, women, children, and even babies in the corridors lining the catacombs. The bodies are hanging from the walls, and also lying in glass coffins. Some are mostly skeletons; others still retain their skin and hair. Some are headless.
One young female baby is a 2 year old mummy placed there in 1920, the last mummy placed in the catacombs. Her name is Rosalia Lombardo, a/k/a “The Sleeping Beauty.” She died of a bronchial infection in December, and she was embalmed for the family by a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer by the name of Alfredo Salafia.
The secret embalming process used only came to light in 2010 when scientists requested permission from the family to sort through Salafia’s personal papers.
In 1624, the devastating Black Plague came to Italy. One night during this dreadful time, a procession of 40 monks was seen walking in procession in the middle of the night.
The next morning when the Father Superior was asked why he had his monks out walking in the middle of the night, he was confused. He said that no monks had left the monastery the night before.
The locals then believed that saints were in the catacombs and had manifested as monks to help the city end the plague.
Scariest Places on Earth, SyFy Channel, viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/user/azpitbull#p/c/01D1932F5