National Geographic travels to Sicily Where the Dead Don't Sleep in the catacombs beneath the Capuchin monastery in Palermo.
In Europe the desiccation and preservation of corpses is a particularly Sicilian affair. There are other examples in Italy, but the great majority are in Sicily, where the relationship between the living and the dead is especially strong. Nobody knows how many there really are, or how many have since been removed from catacombs and buried in cemeteries by priests uneasy with the theology of keeping votive corpses. The phenomenon provokes an instant question: Why would anyone do this? Why would you exhibit decaying bodies?
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 filthy 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 pneumonia and died. Crazy with grief, her father asked Alfredo Salafia, a noted embalmer, to preserve her. The effect is dreadfully, tragically vital, and the grief still seems to hang over this little blond head.
An enormous amount can be gleaned from dead bodies about the day-to-day lives of the past—diet, illnesses, and life expectancy. Knowing more about diseases like syphilis, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis centuries ago can help us get the better of them today. The scientists 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 suffered horribly from dental conditions—tartar buildup, receding gums, caries, and abscesses.
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 dispassion, when they're pulling a molar out.