It is mid-afternoon, the breaking point of daylight, when I finally reach the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo and walk down a curving ramp in a long white tunnel. I am there to find a two-year-old girl named Rosalia Lombardo who died in 1920. It was hard to find this place where the unburied dead are on display for the living. I’d had to pick my way through a tangle of Palermo’s winding streets and soon, I found myself lost in a neighbourhood friends had warned me about. Suspicious residents eyed me, some shouting directions that took me through small alleys, into cramped underpasses and past shanties that reminded me of Addis Ababa’s slums. Along the way, I stumbled upon a beautiful horse whinnying in a single-room house. Newspapers would later announce a horse found dead in the area, one of the oldest strongholds of the Mafia, the result of a freak accident that would uncover an illegal horse-betting ring. I wasn’t aware of any of this that day, however. All I knew as I tried to find my way to the catacombs is that I did not belong there. And perhaps this was the most fitting emotion to have as I finally approached the catacombs, a macabre remnant of another age, a place where the living could – and still can – gaze at the mummified bodies of those who refused to go gently into the night, all 8,000 of them.

I go through the chilly corridors, listening carefully for any other footsteps. I am alone beneath the earth in a crypt. Napoleonic-era soldiers lay lonely and forlorn inside their dusty coffins, dry and nearly fleshless in their faded military uniforms. There are doctors and lawyers in their best suits, women in flouncing dresses, children in their frilly gowns and staid jackets. I walk past a cell reserved for virgins and another specifically for infants and young toddlers. I can’t help staring at the curling, full moustache of American Vice-Consul Giovanni Paterniti (who died in 1911); it seems far too decadent for its grim surroundings. I try to shake free of my inclination to make comparisons to Dante’s Purgatory and his encounter with the anguished spirits damned to a frustrating limbo. These are not spirits, I tell myself. These are simply members of an elite cadre of the dead, spiritless. Nothing but drained flesh kept well past the point of decay. I want to wipe away the smell, a pungent odour that threads up my nose and settles in the back of my throat. I know what it is: old skin floating on dust. Most of the bodies that surround me, if not in coffins, hang on walls from wire and nail in slumping poses. Many are skeletal with matted tufts of hair poking up from nearly fleshless skulls, their facial features misshapen by hundreds of years of gravity. Mummification used to be a privilege. It was a way for the dead to trudge back from the deepest nether land each time their body was viewed. A kind of circular, unending resurrection that thrust them out of oblivion and into memory. But time has been merciless with its own forward march. Except for their star resident, Rosalia Lombardo, these mummies not only look undeniably dead, but grotesquely so.

It was divine intervention that led the way to the creation of the catacombs in the late sixteenth century. The Capuchin friars who settled there in the early half of the century buried their dead in a large pit close to their church. Decades later, an exhumation of one of these burial pits showed that forty-five cadavers were startlingly well preserved. It was, they said, a miracle. Forty of those bodies were transferred to a new room built behind the main altar of the Santa Maria della Pace church to give them a place fitting of this extraordinary discovery. From 1599 on, the number of mummies increased, necessitating the construction of one room, then another and another, until the corridors wound around corners and included wall niches, coffins and small cell-like rooms. At first, the catacombs included only the early mummified friars, then members of the nobility requested internment there. It was initially a prime location to be buried, mummification a status symbol reserved for those who could afford it. It left the rest of the population to common graves or pits; unremarkable deaths for seemingly unremarkable lives. By 1787, however, the catacombs had expanded to include priests, professionals, soldiers and men, women and children from all social strata. By 1832 this holy cemetery could grow no more and shortly after Italian unification in 1861, nearly all burials were relegated to graveyards and the catacombs were used only as temporary holding stations before bodies were interned in cemeteries.

Compared to the complex procedures involved with mummification in ancient Egypt, the dead in Palermo were not difficult to preserve. Corpses were laid on ceramic grids so their bodily fluids could drain away. The cells where they were kept were then shut off for close to a year, virtually sealing them from all that could ravage the body. After they were brought out, bodies were washed with vinegar and dressed. Preservation was made easier by the church’s natural surroundings and the conditions in the crypt: low humidity, good airflow and cool temperatures. Some, in fact, still retain soft tissue. They were clothed according to their profession or the fashion of the day.

Rosalia Lombardo’s father was a military general who had witnessed the bloody battles of the Great War then survived the 1918 influenza epidemic that ripped its way cross the world. It would eventually kill close to one-fifth of its population, more than twice the number that died in World War One. He was familiar with the sight of the sick and the wounded, the dying and the dead. So when his young daughter succumbed to pneumonia in 1920, he should have been bowed with grief but not bent insensibly by it. Yet when she died, he was Father, not General, and perhaps more than anything, he couldn’t fathom life without another glance at his daughter’s face. He begged the assistance of a local taxidermist by the name of Alfredo Salafia to preserve her body.

Salafia was no stranger to embalming. He had tested his experimental formulas on animals, then was given permission to apply them to unclaimed cadavers, then eventually, he had gone on to perfect his work on his own father’s body. He had demonstrated his expertise to a NYC public at the Eclectic Medical College, and had already done wonders with another corpse, that of American Vice Consul Paterniti. General Lombardo knew whom to seek when his daughter died. More than ninety years after her death, Rosalia still looks disconcertingly the same. Almost alive.

Soon I find Rosalia’s small room. She rests in a crib-sized coffin. Her head is the only exposed part of her, the rest nestled in a blanket tucked just beneath her chin. I have read extensively about the girl and looked at endless photos. Despite the prior research, however, I can’t help being surprised. Her blond hair still holds its vibrancy, held by a ribbon that has somehow managed to keep its colour. Curls fall across her forehead in wisps, combed carefully into place. Her lashes are thick and so long they seem to brush her plump cheeks. Her lips do not draw back with the shrunken, distorted smile common in the other mummies. She is called ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and rightly so. She looks as if she’s just a breath away from opening her eyes and smiling into your curious gaze. Rosalia was perhaps Salafia’s most glorious achievement, a testament to his skills and the effectiveness of the embalming fluids whose formula he would take with him to his grave. She has defied almost all of the destructive, morbid forces that prey on each of us when we die. Looking at her, it would be easy to ignore the rest of the 7,000 plus crumbling bodies of evidence that point to a different, more horrifying demise.

We want to believe that we will die with dignity; that death is a confrontation and the battle is somewhat fair. We write about death but few of us have been witness to it. We imagine our last moments. We want to ‘go in our sleep’ without suffering, but don’t see the contradiction in wanting time to make our final goodbyes. We shroud our terror in myths and wishes. We embrace religion and expose ourselves to horror films. We swing on the pendulum between fascination and repulsion, trying to find the balance that will lead us to our own graceful end. We don’t want to admit what most doctors know: that death holds no dignity, that our passing could very likely be painful and ugly, that even with the advances in medicine, we have not been able to negotiate a kind way to go.

When you die, the eyes that are moving across this page will be the first to still. Death will start with your eyelids then work its way down. Your eyes will lose their focus. They will remain open, staring at nothing, as a gray film covers them. Your pupils will dilate to a wide blackness and that familiar curve of your cornea will flatten. Your brain will have stopped. If you are receiving oxygen, a pallor will fall across your face and what they’ve written is true: your features will have a marble smoothness that can only be described as corpse-like. If you die short of breath, the choking will colour you a bluish tint bordering on a disturbing shade of purple. In either case, no one will be able to mistake you for your living self. Then it will continue down, towards your neck. Your jaw will go slack and tug your mouth open. Death will travel to your arms and chest, your stomach and legs. In twelve hours, full rigor mortis will set in; this is if you are lucky in the way you die. If you have suffered through a sudden, violent death, rigidity could hit harder, quicker, as if mocking your best attempts to stay alive. If you are like most, though, you will die in a hospital. The heart you have might try to beat for just a little longer. If you could see through your own skin and flesh, past the ribs that might have cracked from desperate attempts at CPR, it would look like it is wriggling: a wet, jellylike bag of bloody muscle. Its best efforts will be futile. It will not have the blood it needs to spring you back to the land of the living. You will still be dead.

Your corpse will be at the mercy of the living. Relatives will contend with the grief that death brings and they will shoulder its responsibility. One way or another, they will let you go, not only because they have to, but also because they won’t know what else to do with you. Life is for the living. One day, we will be one of those who don’t belong. So, we build our rituals to prop up a door between where we are today and where we know we all must go. It is a flimsy partition with gaping holes if we cared to peer closer. But we keep ourselves busy, doing everything to avoid the fact that we are tender creatures, made fragile by our very existence.

Once dead, your body will want to give in to the natural process of decay. It will want to lay in repose as everything that is capable marches its way towards you and begins to chew you up. Embalming slows the decaying process long enough for our loved ones to say their goodbyes. A coffin or cremation, depending on your preference, halts the stealthy animals eager for carrion. We will be aware of none of the dangers or precautions, deaf to the eulogies, and oblivious to the mournful tears. Even if we are remembered fondly, we will be at the mercy of all that life brings to those who cared enough to weep when we died. Even memories fade. We will one day disappear completely.

There is a moment in The Divine Comedy when Dante, glimpsing Beatrice for the first time, turns to tell his trusted guide, Virgil, about her appearance. He quickly realizes that the wise old poet has vanished without a word. Despite the presence of the woman who once made him tremble, and the familiar ‘mighty power of old love’ that surges in him, Dante cannot help lamenting his sudden loss. ‘But Virgil had deprived us of himself,’ he exclaims and adds that even ‘all our ancient mother lost / was not enough to keep my cheeks . . . / from darkening again with tears’. Like a child who has lost ‘the gentlest father’, he seems incapable of looking at what he has now. It is as if what is gone holds more power than what stands before him.

Standing in front of Rosalia’s see-through coffin, I think back to this particular moment in Dante’s Purgatory. My instinct has been to compare the little girl to Beatrice, to see Rosalia as a kind of pure, shining example of our glorious possibilities, even beyond life. But bearing witness to Rosalia’s corpse points me instead to the vanished Virgil and Dante’s heartbreaking anguish. Dante speaks of his guide in life-sustaining terms; he calls him ‘Virgil, he / to whom I gave my self for my salvation’. In the beginning of his journey he needed Virgil to guide him away from where he once stood: ‘within a shadowed forest / for I had lost the path that does not stray’. He relies on his guide to lead him through the terrifying Inferno and Purgatory, until they reach the edge of Paradise. Virgil warns Dante when they first meet that he can only go so far, then ‘a soul more worthy than I am will guide you; / I’ll leave you in her care when I depart’. Yet Dante’s first response when Virgil is gone, even as he yearns to follow Beatrice and knows that he will do so, is a startled, shaken sorrow that calls to mind General Lombardo’s devastating sadness at the death of his daughter.

I stay with her for a long time, mesmerized and disturbed not only by what I see, but what I imagine to be all the necessary moments that took place before she was put in the cell. I soon notice something, however. She does not look like the photos or postcards that I’ve seen. Her skin is darker, her cheeks rougher and dry. Something has changed. Perhaps it is the same something that tugs at the other mummies held straight by wires on the wall. Despite the reinforcements, many lean forward or tip to one side; their heads dangle at the end of delicate vertebrae, their chins sag against brittle collarbones. Even those more rigidly tied hunker down against the upward pull. Gravity has set in; time is still busy in the crypt and Rosalia seems to be no exception.

Photo-oxidation is leaving its mark on Rosalia Lombardo. Light is scraping away at her bit by bit, and adjustments have to be made to stop the process. Salafia’s formula, however well it worked, could not fight her body’s inclination to crumble and fade away. It seems that despite our breakthrough innovations and our vigilant care to stay alive, stay healthy, stay here, the most natural thing is to go. Even a distraught Dante understood the necessary transformation that beckoned him forward, a shift that would pull him out of the cerebral world of his learned guide, to the intimate, deeply personal voyage Beatrice promised. And like Virgil, we must be unafraid to disappear when we have reached the end of our path, no matter what we leave behind, no matter how quickly we will be forgotten. The lost are those who have refused, who find themselves forever trapped in the shadowed forest. They have nowhere to turn but back to dust at an agonizing pace. We are each of us, in the end, captive to that downward tug or the wayward flight of ash. But maybe that is not so bad after all.


Photograph by Patrick Denker

Karen Russell | Interview