“Hey Jen, I’m thinking about going to these catacombs. The guidebook says they’re really interesting.”
“Have fun, Dave.”

To be clear, there’s nothing “fun” about visiting the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in Sicily. As anyone who has visited the Catacombs in Paris can attest, catacombs are super creepy. Lots of bones, lots of skulls. But Palermo’s catacombs are particularly interesting, especially if you have any taste at all for the macabre (which I apparently do).
The history of the catacombs goes back a ways. When the original Capuchin monastery started outgrowing its cemetery in the 16th century, the monks began excavating the crypts below it. Although the catacombs were originally intended only for deceased friars, they later became something of a status symbol, along the lines of: “I’m important; I want my place in the crypt. Oh, and I’ll pay to have someone change my clothes occasionally.” Who said you can’t take it with you?!! The final burial in the catacombs took place in 1939, for the Count of Isnello.

The catacombs today contain over 8,000 corpses and 1,200 mummies, divided by category: men, women, virgins, children, priests, monks, and professionals. Visiting them as a tourist is a bizarre but strangely compelling experience. Unlike other catacombs, Palermo version is not about bones and hidden crypts. You actually SEE the mummies, tucked into little niches in the walls. Some of them are sitting or reclining; many are hanging on pegs. Most all of them are dressed up, their clothes in various stages of decay. You’ll even see mummies in poses, like the two children sitting together in a rocking chair.

As I walk through the catacombs, I can’t help contemplating my own mortality. That could be me in one of those niches, somewhere between life and death, and certainly not sitting next a paternal deity in a cloud-like heaven. It’s a strange conversation I have with myself, but perhaps an important one, as I consider how I want to live the rest of my life, aboveground.
Like I said, not exactly fun experience, but definitely a Wow.