A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Class still has its privileges in the catacombs of Palermo.
Much of my career has been spent studying mummies, working with cadavers from the ancient and not so ancient past. I am comfortable in the presence of the deceased, but some mummies can still be unnerving, like the two thousand or so in the centuries-old crypts beneath the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. There, the dehydrated dead are clothed in their finest attire--priests wear their robes, military officers their uniforms, and society men and women are dressed as if expecting to attend a dinner or ball. Many of the mummies are stretched out in niches carved into the limestone, but because space was at a premium, others are hung from hooks on the walls. The great majority of them are little more than skeletons today, and their jaws have been loosely wired in place so they appear to be gaping at you.
During a recent visit, I found myself wondering what it was about these mummies that made them so eerie. Perhaps it was their clothes and upright postures. We have always had separate realms for the living and the dead. Call it heaven, the netherworld, or just the graveyard, there's a place where the dead belong and it's not among the living, all dressed up for a day's work or an evening out. The Palermo mummies are ghoulish because they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing--they play at being alive.
The Palermo catacombs consist of four long halls cut into the limestone to form a rectangular passageway: the hall of men runs into the hall of women, which leads to the hall of professionals, which connects with the hall of monks (a separate hall parallel to this is for priests). The mummies have been grouped according to age and social status. Dozens of long-dead infants, still in their baby clothes and many still in their cribs, keep each other company. Suspended from their hooks, lawyers and physicians congregate in the hall of professionals. Normally one thinks of death as the great equalizer; not so in the catacombs of Palermo. Here class still has its privileges, a kind of Club Dead.
Bob Brier is an Egyptologist on the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and contributing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.