National Geographic : 2009 Feb
• relics are used to aid prayer and belief, maybe these bodies were thought to have been pre- served by God to reinforce faith. Or perhaps the catacombs were made as a great vanitas, a memento mori, an illustration of the passing of all worldly ambition and the inevitability of death and the vanity and foolishness of storing up wealth on Earth. In later years some of the bodies were more elaborately preserved by means of chemical injections, taking the responsibility out of the hands of God and leaving it to undertakers and science. In one of the chapels a little girl, Rosalia Lombardo, lies in her coffin. She appears to be sleeping under a lthy brown sheet. Unlike many of the other strained and dried mummies, she has her own hair, which hangs in doll-like curls over her yellow forehead, tied up with a big yellow silk bow. Her eyes are closed, the eyelashes perfectly preserved. If she weren t surrounded by the grinning skulls and rot of this place, she could be just a child dozing on the way home from a party. The naturalism and the beauty are arresting; the implication that life is a mere breath away, disturbing and spooky. Rosalia was two when she got pneumo- nia and died. Crazy with grief, her father asked Alfredo Sala a, a noted embalmer, to preserve her. e e ect is dreadfully, tragically vital, and the grief still seems to hang over this little blond head. (Sala a sold his mummi cation uid--- keeping the formula secret---to funeral homes in the United States, as the fashion for embalm- ing spread a er the slaughter of the Civil War.) In Palermo, Rosalia is mentioned as a sort of semideity, a magical little angel. e taxi drivers say, "Did you see Rosalia? Bella." that crawls up the side of a hill until it reaches a view across the eastern end of the island to the sea. A tightly are signs to remind you to be respectful and not take photographs, but they sell them. It s not clear if this is a religious experience or a cultural one, but it is a tourist attraction. e rst and oldest mummy is a friar: Silvestro da Gubbio, standing in his niche since 1599. ( e word "mummy" is from an Arabic word for bitumen, which resembled the blackened resin the ancient Egyptians used as a preserva- tive.) Most of the bodies are from the 19th cen- tury. To begin with, they were exclusively friars and priests attached to the monastery. As time went on, the religious men were joined by bene- factors and dignitaries and notables. No one knows exactly what started the mum- mi cation; probably by chance it was discovered that a body le in a crypt with a particular atmo- sphere of coolness and porous limestone would actually dry out rather than rot. en a system was devised. e newly dead were laid in cham- bers, called strainers, on terra-cotta slats over drains, where their body uids could seep away and the corpses slowly desiccate, like prosciutto. A er eight months to a year, they d be washed with vinegar, put back in their best clothes, and either placed in co ns or hung on the walls. Preserving ancestral bodies is done in any number of places, but they re rarely displayed like this. Sicily has so many cultures, so many people came here with their practices and beliefs and were assimilated, that little bits now and again rise to the surface, their origins long forgotten. It has been suggested that perhaps the practice is the residual echo of a much older, pre-Christian rite---belief in the shamanistic power of corpses. Not every corpse would have dried out; some must have rotted, and so the preservation of others might have been an intimation of God s will, a divine hand keep- ing certain individuals as they were as a mark of a particular worldly goodness. As saints Trapdoors before the cathedral s altar lead to the crypt in Novara di Sicilia. Traditionally saints were interred under altars to secure divine protection for the church. Ordinary people were thought to receive bene t: e closer to the altar, the more sought a er the burial place.