National Geographic : 2009 Feb
• 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 centi- pedes. A number of bodies are still kept in their elaborate co ns. Gingerly I li a heavy lid that may not have been moved for over a century and peer inside. e 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 ne, 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 inti- mately familiar. Something sensed for the rst time, but also with a strange and compelling sense of déjà vu. for sure what these corpses meant to the congregations who laid them out and dressed them. ey remain one of Sicily s many mysteries. We are le with our own concerns, thoughts, and doubts when confronted by these comic and tragic visions of death. It is di cult 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. e 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 oor opens electronically, just as in a James Bond lm. Down a flight of steps is a room with carved stone niches containing the variously and now famil- iarly sagging bodies of six more prelates. On a high shelf stacked with skulls is a box contain- ing two cats, naturally mummi ed, like a faint shadow of ancient Egypt. ey got trapped in the crypt, a reminder that even with nine lives, there s only one end. j 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. Know- ing more about diseases like syphilis, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis centuries ago can help us get the better of them today. e scien- tists 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 su ered 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 re- moved, and others have been stuffed with rags and leaves, including bay leaves, perhaps to mitigate the smell, or because they were sup- posed to have some preservative value. Fill- ing out the shrunken forms would have made them more lifelike. e skin has the waxy qual- ity 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 dispas- sion, when they re pulling a molar out. A few years back these bodies were vandal- ized in their crypt. People broke in and poured green paint over them. Lurid and humiliat- ing, 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 ■ Society Grant Research on these mummies was funded in part by your Society membership.