I didnít know what to expect as we arrived on the bus. Our guide, Frederico, assured us that these Catacombs would impress us. "But why are they in the middle of this busy city?" I asked myself. The bus halted and we grabbed our gear and unloaded onto the streets of Palermo.
All 35 of us walked single file through the crowded, congested streets. Merchants hustled the townspeople, selling vegetables, flowers and trinkets. But the moment we arrived, everything stopped. We became the center of attention.
We stopped before a large building, which looked like a library. It was plain and tall, filled up by masses of tan stone. But rather than entering this magnificent structure, we headed into a small entrance to the right.
Our sunny day turned into a poorly lit hallway with a staircase descending at the end. Before the staircase stood a statue of the Virgin Mary, crying. A foreshadowing of sorts, I assumed, of what we were about to see. I paused, then became scared. What was down there? Where were we going? We descended into the Catacombs.
As the first set of stairs stopped, the hallway fed into a long arched corridor, which was badly chipped and flaked with white paint. A musty earth smell filled the tunnel, and grew stronger as I twisted through the windy hallways. My feet stuck and squeaked on the slippery stone steps. At an opening up ahead, I started to move quickly, and then I stopped dead. I saw thousands of faces, hollowed out, crying for loved ones.
The bodies of men, women, and children hung up everywhere. Bones and empty faces stared at me. It felt nearly like a toy store with displays of corpses filling the shelves, floor to ceiling. Each body was well dressed, and hung neatly. Each body wore a different mask of sorts, like Halloween. Despite their uniformity, an eerie awkwardness marked them. Heads were cocked stiffly to the side, hands crossed over and bound together in front. They almost looked crucified, yet the crossed hands lined up in a row created the illusion of them holding hands, joining together to become one.
The floor, too, held the graves of some of the deceased. And in a small chamber off to the right, I found the bodies of 30 little children displayed in an altar. Each small body wore a bonnet and lace dress, each little face hid behind the bonnet, seeming scared to look out. Each was displayed in its own niche in the wall, like porcelain dolls, lined up. At the foot of the altar, newborn babies lay in their cribs, while the bodies of older children watched over them. A cross hung on the peeling fresco wall behind them; a statue of God surveyed them from above. What happened? Why did they die? Why did they all look so fragile and frightened? I left, feeling like an intruder, feeling like they were looking at me, judging me.
I followed the checker-patterned floor of white marble headstones to the next section where we stopped to view a different cross section of the Catacombs. Each section was laid out just like the rest, each body in each section holding the hands of the next. However, above the sections there were now signs, which distinguished professions. The dead here were all categorized and filed away, like library books. Each new tunnel we came upon had a distinct profession.
The farther we walked, the scarier the faces became. Heads were twisted sideways, and some had missing or broken jaws, which hung down as if they were all screaming to get out. The dark hollows of their eyes sank back into emptiness. I tried not to stare at faces, but I felt that a thousand pairs of eyes were watching me. Bodies were packed tightly against one another; no space was left unused. Some looked scary, others looked peaceful. Some had rosaries gripped tightly between shriveled fingers, and others had no fingers at all. Despite their horror, the bodies created a beauty at the same time: well preserved, still dressed in original clothes, each carrying a familyís history. One body was adorned with a new, brightly colored blanket, a sign that a family member was still alive, a sign of respect, an homage.
We circled back to the same corridor that carried the musty smell. In a corner, it split off to a small altar, decorated with lit candles and flowers. The altar, one of the two remaining, was dedicated to a little girl, Rosalia Lombardo, the last body to be put to rest here. As I stepped up to view her remains, I imagined she would look like the other infants I had seen earlier, each wrapped up, hollow little skulls peering out.
But the body of Rosalia was not a skeleton at all. She looked like a wax figure in a museum. She lay in her case, eyes shut, as if sleeping. Her face was still rosy with color, her blue dress perfectly fit on her small body. Her blond locks of curly hair remained in place with a blue bow that matched her dress. Her glass coffin was showered with roses of different colors. She resembled a porcelain doll in her box, a collectorís item never opened, never touched, never disturbed.
As I left Rosalia, I passed through another gate, a cross section that entered the main chamber. Above the bodies that lay in this section though, were a series of skulls, a decorative molding made entirely of old bones. They all rested on an angle, pointing toward the exit, as if telling you to leave.
My 20-minute journey through the Catacombs seemed like a lifetime. I may never forget the thousands of faces that watched me that day, or the way I felt, escorted to the exit by skulls, that held an eternal emptiness in the hollows of their eyes.