‘Nowhere to turn but back to dust’


Rosalia Lombardo in 1995

From Granta:

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. All I knew as I tried to find my way to the catacombs is that I did not belong there. 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.

“Vanishing Virgil”, Maaza Mengiste, Granta