An Ancient Tradition


The practice of mummification is an ancient tradition that has taken hold particularly in Sicily and the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are the highest expression of this tradition, because of the huge number of preserved human housed in them.

A fascinating overview that lead to reflection on the meaning of death and it allows a better understanding of this solemn tradition of the ancient Sicilian society, particularly evident in the Palermitan aristocracy and Palermitan people.


A mummy is a corpse that has been preserved after death and it has not decomposed. It is considered a mummy, and not simply a skeleton, the body that retains a bit of its tissue, such as skin, hair, muscles. This can happen as a natural process, called natural mummification, or as an intentional process, called artificial mummification.

Natural Mummification

Most of the bodies found in the Catacombs of Palermo were preserved naturally.

The natural mummification is a process of transformation of the body which is based on dehydration: removing the fluids present in the tissues it stops the growth of bacteria and consequently also the process of decay of the body.
And this is the mummification process that the Capuchins perfected after the miraculous discovery of forty-five corpses intact.
Shortly after death, the bodies were placed in a preparation room called the "colatoio", where were removed the internal organs; in their place were added straw or bay leaves, in order to facilitate the process of dehydration.

The bodies were placed in a supine position on grids made of terracotta tubes, so their bodily fluids could drain away and their flesh dessicate. The colatoio, which rappresented the optimal environment for mummification, with drier air and very low humidity, were then shut off for close to a year. After the corpses were exposed to the air, washed with vinegar and dressed, often in clothes of their own choosing, before being inserted in the wall niches.
At the end, the skin took on the consistency of leather and the body was characterized by a reduced weight and general stiffness.

Arsenic Baths

Natural mummification, however, was not the only method employed by Capuchins for cadaver preservation.
During periods of epidemics, they bathed the bodies in arsenic. The results were mummies surprisingly intact, still nowadays. Is this the method used for the body of Antonio Prestigiacomo standing in the Catacombs within a niche with rose-colored face.

Artificial Mummification

The artificial mummification, also called embalming, is achieved by injection of chemicals.
In the Catacombs of Palermo this process of preservation of the bodies was used only occasionally.
Famous is the case of Rosalia Lombardo, a child of two years died in Palermo in 1920 and embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia, which results are still visible: the serene face, the golden curls that fall on the forehead, the soft and relaxed skin give an incredible feeling of life so as to be considered the "world's most beautiful mummy".

"You are what we were, we are what you will be."

Discover More

The Origins

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo were built as a simple cemetery in which to bury the monks of the monastery and their current development it must be to the case.

The History

The news of the 45 bodies found intact in the Capuchin convent attracted great attention.

The Corridors

The mummies were arranged throughout the corridors by profession, sex and social status.