Where the Dead Don’t Sleep

Sicily’s macabre mummies offer lessons about life.

This story appears in the February 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Palermo’s airport is named Falcone-Borsellino. It sounds like a ‘70s American cop show, and you’d be forgiven for not knowing who either of the names belong to. They were a pair of mortally brave magistrates who tried to finally break the ancient grip of organized crime in Sicily. Both were assassinated.

They don't like to talk about the Mafia to strangers here; it's an embarrassing family concern, none of our business, a private tragedy. Sicily is a secretive place. You can sense it in the blackened, baroque streets of Palermo, the capital, where the bomb damage from the 1943 Allied landings still hasn't been quite cleaned up and where the tenement palaces are inhabited by North African refugees. It's a watchful and masculine place, beautiful and thwarted.

Sicily's history is as mordant and miserable a romance as any in Europe—well into the 1950s these were among the poorest peasants in the Western world. For centuries they eked out a meager life, suffering constant vendettas and feuds, injustice, exploitation, honor killings, and murderous codes, all surrounded by the smell of mandarin blossom and incense. In Sicily, blood called to blood for blood down the ages.

The Capuchin monastery in Palermo is a discreetly blank building. It sits in a quiet square beside a graveyard, across town from where, in 1992, the Mafia settled its account with Magistrate Borsellino. Outside the door, tucked into a corner, are a couple of hawkers peddling post­cards and guidebooks; inside, a friar sits behind a table selling tickets and more postcards and votive trinkets. It's a slow day; he reads the paper.

Down a flight of stairs, past a wooden statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, is the door to the catacomb, the waiting room of the dead. Surprisingly large, with high, vaulted ceilings and long corridors stretching away at right angles. It's cool and dank and smells of sour, spiced dust and rotting cloth. The windows are high and diffuse the sunlight into a pale glow. Fluorescent bulbs vibrate, adding a medically forensic, anemic brightness. Hanging from the walls, propped on benches, resting in their decrepit boxes, are nearly 2,000 dead. They're dressed in their living best, the uniforms of their earthly calling. There's no one else down here.

In Europe the desiccation and preservation of corpses is a particularly Sicilian affair. There are other examples in Italy, but the great majority are in Sicily, where the relationship between the living and the dead is especially strong. Nobody knows how many there really are, or how many have since been removed from catacombs and buried in cemeteries by priests uneasy with the theology of keeping votive corpses. The phenomenon provokes an instant question: Why would anyone do this? Why would you exhibit decaying bodies?

I walk down their ranks with that awkward confusion of trying to make sense of what it is I'm actually feeling. In the West we don't often see dead bodies—the absence of life is shrouded and hidden. These dead have a mystique; they come with an attitude and previous convictions. Examining the corpses with a morbid interest—so this is what death looks like—I realize that the big difference between the living and the dead is that you can stare at the dead with an intense, close-up curiosity that the living would never tolerate. And then I think they really ought to be playing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" as background music, given how like prosthetic, schlock-horror-effect zombies these bodies look, how comically and patheti­cally the great denouement of nature mimics not just art but cheap art. Their jaws hang open in silent yowls, rotting teeth grin with menace, eye sockets stare bleakly, shreds of hard skin cling to shrunken cheeks and arthritic knuckles. These people are mostly small, their arms crossed as they sag against the wire and nails that hold them upright, their heads lolling on shoulders, bodies slowly collapsing with the effort of imitating a past life.

The corridors are segregated into religious folk and professional, meaning doctors and lawyers and a couple of vaudeville grand soldiers in their carabinieri uniforms. There's a women's corridor where the guide points out that we can admire the fashions of the past. The skeletons stand in shredded rags, grimed and bleached a murky gray. There is little to admire. A side chapel is devoted to those who died virgins, especially poignant and by contemporary mores a patheti­cally cruel appellation to carry into eternity. When they were interred here, they must have appeared as symbols of purity amongst the decay.

And then there is a small chapel for infants. The children are dressed in their party frocks, propped up like living-dead dolls. One sits on a nursery chair with a little skeleton on her lap, perhaps a younger sibling, unbearably pitiful and simultaneously laughably grotesque.

This isn't like the catacombs of Rome, an archaeological excavation of tombs. Here the bodies were always meant to be seen, and they charge you a small fee for the pleasure. There are signs to remind you to be respectful and not take photographs, but they sell them. It's not clear if this is a religious experience or a cultural one, but it is a tourist attraction.

The first and oldest mummy is a friar: Silvestro da Gubbio, standing in his niche since 1599. (The word "mummy" is from an Arabic word for bitumen, which resembled the blackened resin the ancient Egyptians used as a preservative.) Most of the bodies are from the 19th century. To begin with, they were exclusively friars and priests attached to the monastery. As time went on, the religious men were joined by benefactors and dignitaries and notables.

No one knows exactly what started the mummification; probably by chance it was discovered that a body left in a crypt with a particular atmosphere of coolness and porous limestone would actually dry out rather than rot. Then a system was devised. The newly dead were laid in chambers, called strainers, on terra-cotta slats over drains, where their body fluids could seep away and the corpses slowly desiccate, like prosciutto. After eight months to a year, they'd be washed with vinegar, put back in their best clothes, and either placed in coffins or hung on the walls.

Preserving ancestral bodies is done in any number of places, but they're rarely displayed like this. Sicily has so many cultures, so many people came here with their practices and beliefs and were assimilated, that little bits now and again rise to the surface, their origins long forgotten. It has been suggested that perhaps the practice is the residual echo of a much older, pre-Christian rite—belief in the shamanistic power of corpses. Not every corpse would have dried out; some must have rotted, and so the preservation of others might have been an intimation of God's will, a divine hand keeping certain individuals as they were as a mark of a particular worldly goodness. As saints' relics are used to aid prayer and belief, maybe these bodies were thought to have been preserved by God to reinforce faith. Or perhaps the catacombs were made as a great vanitas, a memento mori, an illustration of the passing of all worldly ambition and the inevitability of death and the vanity and foolishness of storing up wealth on Earth.

In later years some of the bodies were more elaborately preserved by means of chemical injections, taking the responsibility out of the hands of God and leaving it to undertakers and science. In one of the chapels a little girl, Rosalia Lombardo, lies in her coffin. She appears to be sleeping under a filthy brown sheet. Unlike many of the other strained and dried mummies, she has her own hair, which hangs in doll-like curls over her yellow forehead, tied up with a big yellow silk bow. Her eyes are closed, the eyelashes perfectly preserved. If she weren't surrounded by the grinning skulls and rot of this place, she could be just a child dozing on the way home from a party. The naturalism and the beauty are arresting; the implication that life is a mere breath away, disturbing and spooky. Rosalia was two when she got pneumonia and died. Crazy with grief, her father asked Alfredo Salafia, a noted embalmer, to preserve her. The effect is dreadfully, tragically vital, and the grief still seems to hang over this little blond head. (Salafia sold his mummification fluid—keeping the formula secret—to funeral homes in the United States, as the fashion for embalming spread after the slaughter of the Civil War.) In Palermo, Rosalia is mentioned as a sort of semideity, a magical little angel. The taxi drivers say, "Did you see Rosalia? Bella."

Savoca is a silent village that crawls up the side of a hill until it reaches a view across the eastern end of the island to the sea. A tightly wound place that corkscrews back on itself. This is where Francis Ford Coppola filmed The Godfather. The bar where Michael and his tragic wife had their wedding reception sits on the tiny square looking exactly as it did 37 years ago on-screen. There's no obvious sign mentioning the movie. They don't like the association; most Sicilians I ask profess never to have seen it.

At the top of the hill is a convent, a place that looks more like a youth hostel than a Gothic medieval institution. There are only two nuns here, both Indians from Jharkhand. They wear woollies and jackets over their saris. In a side room, laid out in temporary plywood packing cases, are a couple of dozen cadavers that are being studied by a trio of scientists.

They're an unlikely team: Arthur Aufderheide, an octogenarian American from Minnesota who started as a pathologist and moved on to become one of the world's top mummy experts; Albert Zink, a big German who is the director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in northern Italy; and a young Sicilian, Dario Piombino-Mascali—excitable and nervous, constantly worried, enthused and driven and possibly brilliant—who has a bolt through his eyebrow and a jacket that has "Boxfresh" written on the back, apparently without irony.

I find him leaning over a very unfresh box and delicately lifting the surplice of a 19th-century priest. He is looking for an unobtrusive piece of organic material for Professor Zink to do tests on. "Ooh, is this what I think it is?" We all poke our heads up the vicar's frock and concur that it probably is. A thin pouch of powdery dry skin comes away in his hand. A half-centimeter sample is meticulously labeled and packaged. He's not going to miss his scrotum now.

An enormous amount can be gleaned from dead bodies about the day-to-day lives of the past—diet, illnesses, and life expectancy. Knowing more about diseases like syphilis, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis centuries ago can help us get the better of them today. The scientists move methodically, checking the corpses' heights and ages, examining skulls and teeth, looking for the ridges interrupting enamel that signify years of malnutrition. Two mummies are gouty. Five show signs of degenerative arthritis. Almost all these people suffered horribly from dental conditions—tartar buildup, receding gums, caries, and abscesses.

Abdomens are checked for missing organs. One of the bodies has had its soft tissue removed, and others have been stuffed with rags and leaves, including bay leaves, perhaps to mitigate the smell, or because they were supposed to have some preservative value. Filling out the shrunken forms would have made them more life­like. The skin has the waxy quality of parchment, the clothes feel sticky and damp, the faces bloat and yawn, mouths give up wizened larynxes and shriveled tongues for examination.

The scientists are respectful of the bodies, never losing touch with the fact that they were human—they were like us—but still they refer to each one as "it," to keep a distance, a dispassion, when they're pulling a molar out.

A few years back these bodies were vandalized in their crypt. People broke in and poured green paint over them. Lurid and humiliating, it spatters and dribbles across their faces and coats and shoes, making them look even more like characters from a funfair ghost train. The nuns who are keepers of this strange congregation look on with pity and distaste. They tell me the bodies should be decently buried, allowed to return to dust. One says there's nothing spiritual or uplifting to be learned from all this.

The paint-spattered, rag-filled bodies will soon be returned to their empty niches. At the moment the arched alcoves along the wall hold nothing but hun­dreds of dried, dead centi­pedes. A number of bodies are still kept in their elaborate coff­ins. Gingerly I lift a heavy lid that may not have been moved for over a century and peer inside. The air seems to escape with a thick sigh, and the smell grabs the back of my throat—not a rotten smell but the odor of beef tea and the clog­ging aroma of dry mold and fine, powdery layers of human dust. It's a smell that is dra­matically unforgettable, the tincture of silence and sadness, the scent of repeated prayer heard in the distance, or of remorse and regret, a smell that's both repellent and intimately familiar. Something sensed for the first time, but also with a strange and compelling sense of déjà vu.

We will never know for sure what these corpses meant to the congregations who laid them out and dressed them. They remain one of Sicily's many mysteries. We are left with our own concerns, thoughts, and doubts when confronted by these comic and tragic visions of death. It is difficult to untangle the feelings aroused by the bodies, frozen on the journey between nothing and nothing—the mysteries, fears, and hopes, the contradictions of life and loss, that are eternal and universal.

The beautiful town of Novara di Sicilia has a large and piously decorated church. In front of the altar is a secret door to the crypt, and at the press of a hidden button, the floor opens elec­tronically, just as in a James Bond film. Down a flight of steps is a room with carved stone niches containing the variously and now familiarly sagging bodies of six more prelates. On a high shelf stacked with skulls is a box contain­ing two cats, naturally mummified, like a faint shadow of ancient Egypt. They got trapped in the crypt, a reminder that even with nine lives, there's only one end.