<p>A desiccated face looks out from an Italian catacomb. Sicilian mummies are revealing details of life and death centuries ago.</p>

A desiccated face looks out from an Italian catacomb. Sicilian mummies are revealing details of life and death centuries ago.

Where the Dead Don’t Sleep

Sicily’s macabre mummies offer lessons about life.

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.

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