“Dead Virgins Tell No Tales”

The Virgin Mummies of Palermo Italy

By Tomb Scholar Paul Koudounaris

Photos © Paul Koudounaris

 A rattling sound faintly echoed through the corridors as the old monk stepped down the stairs with a ring of keys. The monk asked where I wanted to begin. I replied without hesitation, “The mummified virgins.” The monk nodded, knowingly, and held up his hand to show me that he already had the key out, anticipating my answer. And with a turn of the key I entered the catacombs of the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo, Sicily.

We walked down two long stone corridors, with rows of clothed mummies suspended from the walls; it was like walking through a film still from the Dawn of the Dead. The army of cadavers had been recruited from all levels of society and were in states of preservation varying from dismal to immaculate. Some are pitifully decayed, and I encountered old priests that looked like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and military officers who looked like Skeletor. But then there is a nineteenth-century American legate who has lost nary a hair and, in a small chapel at the end of the first corridor, one finds little Rosalia Lombardo, who died at the age of two and has been called the most perfectly preserved body in the world.

The Palermo catacombs contain the most prodigious collection of cadavers in all of Europe. In 1599 the local chapter of Capuchin monks prepared one of their own brothers, Silvester of Gubbio, and placed him in an underground passageway. They soon began mummifying and displaying more corpses – at first confining themselves to members of the order, but later allowing benefactors of the monastery to be prepared and displayed. Eventually, a kind of prestige developed around having one’s remains mummified by the monks. By the time the final bodies were placed here in the 1920s, thousands of mummies had been prepared, and the passageways were expanded into a series of catacombs with separate sections for ecclesiastics, professionals, women, children and... 

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