Sicily's history is as mordant and miserable a romance as any in Europe—well into the 1950s these were among the poorest peasants in the Western world. For centuries they eked out a meager life, suffering constant vendettas and feuds, injustice, exploitation, honor killings, and murderous codes, all surrounded by the smell of mandarin blossom and incense. In Sicily, blood called to blood for blood down the ages.
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.
In Europe the desiccation and preservation of corpses is a particularly Sicilian affair. There are other examples in Italy, but the great majority are in Sicily, where the relationship between the living and the dead is especially strong. Nobody knows how many there really are, or how many have since been removed from catacombs and buried in cemeteries by priests uneasy with the theology of keeping votive corpses. The phenomenon provokes an instant question: Why would anyone do this? Why would you exhibit decaying bodies?