Palermo III: The Dead City

There is Graffiti on Everything

There is no real bus stop, but the driver recognizes that we’re tourists and drops us off in the right place. 
 
Walking up the hill toward it, we question why we’re doing this in the first place. If it’s going to be creepy. If it’s going to gross us out.
 
“Well,” I say. “We can’t go to Palermo and not see the place with the dead people.”
 
Somehow, this works as an explanation.
 
The outside of the Capuchin catacombs looks like a grimy post office—a low, peaked building with pock-marked pillars set alongside a parking lot. A souvenir stand bakes in the sun beside it, offering gondolier hats and models of Sicilian donkey carts. All these years, I had imagined a grand church or at least a pretty chapel.
 
After paying the 3-Euro entry and descending the stairs, it starts right away. They’re hanging on the walls, each body nestled into a neat plaster relief, wearing a horror-movie-ready, gravity-dragged grimace, and fully, and in many cases artfully clothed. Some appear to have been stuffed with straw from the neck down so that the clothes don’t sag in unsightly ways or fall off the bodies entirely.
 
Most are cue ball skeletons, even the women, but some bear traces of flesh—a fully-formed ear peeled away from a skull, a tuft of dark hair thrown over a shoulder, the prickly remnants of a beard. Many of the women, instead of hanging on the wall, lie in glass-sided coffins wearing their finest—pretty green linens and silk wedding dresses, all of which are more intact than their bodies.
 
I cough in the dry air.
 
“You’re breathing in dead people,” says my sister.
 
She’s right. The crypt is spotless, but dry with the dust of crumbling fabric and paper and bones, everything that goes straight back into the earth.
 
A wall set aside for children—their bodies so tiny in lace and cotton baby clothes—is more sad and sobering than terrifying, each one a memorial to unfathomable individual loss. In another inset off to the side, a stiff skeletal hand reaches forward from a woman’s body, and seems to beckon visitors as though she were a plastic skeleton you could buy at Walmart, the guardian of a haunted house. She is so small in death, so lumpy and hollow.
 
Toward the end, in her own decorated alcove, is the famous little girl in her cradle. She was two when she died in the early 1800s, and her father knew an embalming technique that kept her body preserved and made her the object of veneration. She looks not-quite real, like a wax doll.
 
At the end of the tour, you can buy a postcard with her face on it, and others with photos of the bodies.
 
“Can you imagine sending one of those?” asks my sister. “What do you write on it? ‘Wish you were here?’”

Go there: Palermo’s Capuchin crypt is located at Via Cappuccini, 1. To get there, take the bus from the Piazza Indipendenza and ask the driver to let you off at the crypt. Because he won’t otherwise.

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