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Sicily’s Bony Capuchin Crypt

Palermo, Italy

Palermo’s Capuchin monks had a long tradition of hanging their dead brothers up to dry. Their crypt, now open to the public, is filled with still-clothed skeletons that seem to say, “Don’t get too attached to your earthly existence, because very soon you’ll be just like us.”

Complete Video Script

One of Sicily’s quirkiest charms — nearby in the city of Palermo — is in a crypt below its Capuchin monastery. The Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscan order, have a passion for reminding people of their mortality. Historically, when their brothers died, their bones were saved and put on display. The Capuchins of Palermo took this tradition a step further: Rather than just saving bones, they preserved the bodies in their entirety.

Back in the 16th century, the monks here found that this particular crypt preserved bodies almost miraculously. They later realized that they could actually charge wealthy parishioners for the privilege of being mummified here with their brothers. And this helped raise money to support their monastery.

This maze of corridors contains thousands of skeletons and mummies dressed in the clothing of their choice. Each area features a different group: Monks in their brown robes, women with their favorite dresses, priests with their vestments, soldiers still in uniform, and children looking almost as if taking a long nap. The oldest body — brother Sylvester — has been hanging here since 1599.

One of the brothers gave me a lovely little sermon. He explained that our time on Earth is short, and what really matters is what comes next. These “bodies without souls,” as they call them, are a reminder that we’re all mortal. For this monk, being with all these bodies [has] brought him great joy and peace, as it [has] caused him to focus not on our earthly existence…but on eternity.

Today, the public’s welcome to wander thoughtfully through these halls of haunting faces, which seem determined to tell us a truth that perhaps we’ve yet to learn.

I’m not quite ready for a Capuchin crypt, but I could go for a Capu-ccino. And I’m joined by my Capuchin friend — who, in good Franciscan style, enjoys embracing the moment as well.

Rick: So, we have the same colors?
Monk: Yes, same colors — this...
Rick: Brown...
Monk: ...brown...
Rick: ...and the white, and the robe. So, we’ve got the white and the brown.
Monk: Yes.
Rick: Enjoy.