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Palermo's Undead Dead "Screaming Mummies!"


A "screaming" cleric graces the cover of M. Lanza and L. Facchi's book The Living Dead: The Catacombs of Palermo (2001)

In the centuries-old crypts beneath the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily, there are some the 2,000 or so mummies. Interred there beginning in 1599, they are desiccated in special drying rooms on ceramic racks. Their visages have long amused, fascinated, and unnerved visitors. Thomas Pettigrew, in his 1834 History of Egyptian Mummies, quotes a Captain Sutherland's description of the Palermo mummies: "not withstanding the chilling scene through which we had passed, notwithstanding our being in the midst of more than a thousand lifeless bodies, neither our respect for the dead, nor for the holy fathers who conducted us, could prevent our smiling. The physiognomies of the deceased are so ludicrously mutilated and their muscles are so contracted and distorted in the drying that no French mimic could equal their grimaces. Most of the corpses have lost the lower part of the nose; their necks are generally a little twisted; their mouths drawn awry in one direction, their nose in another; their eye sunk and pointed different ways; one was perhaps turned up, the other drawn down."

More recently, mummy specialist Bob Brier described Palermo's dead residents in ARCHAEOLOGY (May/June 2003): "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. ...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."