I’m generally unimpressed by assertions of a cultural distance between Northern and Southern Europe. Such ideas usually revolve around differing attitudes to work and leisure, the importance of food and family in the South, the more relaxed lifestyle found in warmer climates, and so on. I don’t dispute that such differences exist, but I tend to feel that what separates the north from the south culturally is far outweighed by what unites the two, in comparison to the difference, say, between European and South-east Asian cultures, or between mainstream British culture and my own values. However, entering the Catacombs of the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo, to be confronted by row upon row of corpses of nineteenth-century burghers hung on hooks in their Sunday best, was to encounter genuine and significant cultural difference. Whether this is simply the difference between the Catholic and Protestant domains, or whether a Catholic from Bavaria or Ireland would be equally baffled by such funerary practices, I can’t say; but this fetishisation of death, also seen in the ubiquitous reliquaries of Palermo’s churches, is something quite alien to me. For me, death is neither to be feared or desired, but simply an aspect of existence through which we must all pass, and the idea of preserving my image post-mortem is uninteresting. Having said that, there is something grotesquely entertaining about the spectacle presented in these catacombs, and had I been in the right place at the right time, I might have wanted to participate.
Some of the corpses appear to be in dialogue, whispering asides to one another, or sharing a joke; whether this is by some accident of their tendons contracting as they withered, or by deliberate contrivance of the staff, is impossible to guess, but there are a variety of social dynamics displayed along every corridor. Some, naturally enough, relate to status, as expressed in the quality of the clothing, and presumably also in the company kept by each of the deceased, the desirability of the real estate in their particular corner of necrotopia. There are other forms of status on display here, those more peculiar to the life of the church, or to the leisured sentimentality of those whose economic status was secure: little walled gardens are set aside for the corpses of virgins, and for those of children. Of course we are used to the idea that children are more valued and enjoyed in Southern Europe than in the North, but I would guess that their special status here is more to do with the fetish of innocence, in a religion which identifies sex with sin, and death with a defining moment of moral judgement.
That is perhaps one of the purposes of the entire display, a reminder of death as the leveller of all earthly inequalities; but it was seemingly somehow impossible for the custodians of this place to abandon their attachment to earthly status. Some of the most prominent citizens displayed here, bishops and military officers, and the American consul who fell so in love with Palermo that he wanted to be interred in the local manner, have their dignity apparently punctured in the way they are propped up and arranged like furniture, but doubtless the special circumstances accorded to them are intended as a mark of distinction. There is a certain degree of hypocrisy at work here, in the way that death as a symbol of our equality before God becomes a further pretext to display and reinforce socio-economic status. Perhaps this is why the Catacombs made my skin crawl as much as they did; I’m not overly sensitive to death or corpses (although admittedly most of those I’ve encountered have belonged to rodents), and I have absolutely no fear of ghosts or any sense of the ‘supernatural’, but I was reluctant to enter this labyrinth of hubris, and felt deeply uncomfortable while I remained within.
The catacombs are barely below ground, and several of the passageways have windows, which gives the impression they were contrived in imitation of rather more terrifying, ancient places, but were intended to be amenable to the bourgeois pieties of their visitors. Their only real affordance now, beyond cheap thrills for tourists, is as a resource for the historian of costume, or for costume designers on historical stage and screen productions. In Palermo’s dry air the level of preservation is extraordinary. If it was ever the function of this place to confront its visitors with the prospect of their own death, that is now obscured by historical distance, but I doubt whether death was ever much of a presence here. That boundary between the known and the unknowable, the portal through which no reports return, is hidden beneath the kitsch banalities of social display, its light-eating surface, like the event horizon of a black hole, obscured by the energetic collision of all that is sucked into it. Here, the interested tourist, like the burgher of the past, can stare at death, but never on it; their gaze is deflected by the accumulated residue of all that the dead strove in vain to take with them to that place which we must all attend naked and alone.