Looking like death

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Most people don’t reckon to look their best when they’re dead, but this was not how the status conscious citizens of Palermo in Italy saw it.

Starting in 1599 the Capuchin friars were mummified or embalmed, then displayed, standing, in the catacombs beneath their friary. The idea appealed to the wealthy citizens of Palermo, who clamoured to join them. Permission was granted and, over the centuries, their numbers grew and grew. The custom was only discontinued in the 1920s.

There to this day they stand or sit or lie, gathered according to profession, wearing the clothes they wore in life. They now constitute a fascinating record of social history – and an object of appalled fascination to goggling tourists.

Around 8,000 desiccated corpses gregariously survive in varying states of repair, their expressions altered over time, many of them now seeming silently to be singing in chorus, nattering, making merry or expostulating. One of the last to be entombed was a child, Rosalia Lombardo, who remains to this day touchingly well preserved.

There’s an excellent article by AA Gill here.

Be sure to see the photos which go with the piece here.

There’s more about Rosalia here.

There’s a melodramatic clip about Dario Piombino-Mascali, a palaeopathologist who is working hard to preserve Sicilies many mummies, here.

There’s a website full of pictures plus some very good links here.

Lastly, here is a YouTube film, described by a commenter most appropriately as “sweetly macabre.”

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