National Geographic: Sicily’s crypts


The Capuchin monastery in Palermo is a discreetly blank building. It sits in a quiet square beside a graveyard, across town from where, in 1992, the Mafia settled its account with Magistrate Borsellino. Outside the door, tucked into a corner, are a couple of hawkers peddling post­cards and guidebooks; inside, a friar sits behind a table selling tickets and more postcards and votive trinkets. It’s a slow day; he reads the paper.

Down a flight of stairs, past a wooden statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, is the door to the catacomb, the waiting room of the dead. Surprisingly large, with high, vaulted ceilings and long corridors stretching away at right angles. It’s cool and dank and smells of sour, spiced dust and rotting cloth. The windows are high and diffuse the sunlight into a pale glow. Fluorescent bulbs vibrate, adding a medically forensic, anemic brightness. Hanging from the walls, propped on benches, resting in their decrepit boxes, are nearly 2,000 dead. They’re dressed in their living best, the uniforms of their earthly calling. There’s no one else down here.



About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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