The Capuchin Order is an offshoot of the more famous Franciscans that branched out in the mid sixteenth century. Their names comes from the distinctive hood that the monks wear that has since lent its name to the popular coffee drink Cappuccino, whose foamed milk top it resembles. Even though this Order of the Friars Minor originated in the Marche region of Italy, their unique take on the mortal body after death make them a perfect fit for Sicily. In fact the first monk to be embalmed was placed in the crypt shortly after the Order arrived in Palermo.
Entrance to the Crypt is located at Piazza Cappuccini, which is a short walk from the Palazzo Reale. It is an unassuming building that conforms to the Order’s vow of poverty and may be overlooked if you miss the signs. On arriving you may be greeted by the elderly monk who watches over the crypt as he gestures toward the cool and dark stairway that leads to the crypt. As you walk down the steps one is reminded of Dante’s inscription above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Once inside the crypt feels more like the set for “Night of the Living Dead” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” than a religious community. No horror movie or amusement park haunted house can compete with hundred of bodies dressed in their Sunday’s best and suspended by hooks on the wall. The bodies, in various levels of decay stare down (some with their own eyes) looking like they are ready to grab you, wanting you to join them.
A creepy, eerie feeling surrounds you as you walk along the halls. Suddenly the ghostly voice of a monk echoes through the chamber stating “no photo.” It makes you wonder why anyone would want to take pictures in the first place. If ghosts could be caught on film, it would certainly be here.
Even though it seems like a hodgepodge of bodies, some hanging and some in open coffins, the crypt is organized by social status and gender. The first section contains the monks of the order, the original residents of crypt. This section includes the body of Brother Silvestro da Gubbio, the oldest member of the crypt whose grotesque remains have been welcoming visitors since 1599.
The men’s section is next, all dressed in clothing of their time period and looking ready to rise and join the living. The Women’s section is very interesting as there is a special area for “virgins” denoted by bodies that wear a metal band on their skulls. These maids still wearing their silk dresses and bonnets are very spooky. The professor’s section is actually the area designated for doctors, soldiers another men of professions and include some famous individuals such as the painter Velasquez and sculptor Lorenzo Marabitti. The soldiers dressed in their parade uniforms are still colorful after nearly two centuries. The Priest section is small but contains numerous holy men still wearing their tattered cassocks and ghostly white vestments.
The secret to the embalming process is visible toward the end of the tour as one of the “strainer rooms” used to desiccate the bodies is open to view. The process is mainly due to the conditions in the crypt itself that naturally wicks away bodily fluids. However the bodies are then embalmed using vinegar before being dressed according to family requests.
This process was halted in 1871 with Brother Riccardo being the last buried under these conditions. However in the small chapel at the end of the tour houses the very last member of the crypt, a child that has come to be known as “sleeping beauty”. Rosalia Lombardo died in 1920 and thanks to a secret chemical embalming process she looks as if she is only sleeping. Encased in a glass-covered coffin, it is hard to believe that this little girl died 85 years ago. She looks like she could open her eyes at any moment, a truly haunting vision that stays with you for days.