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The Dead

A couple of years into our one night stand, I learned that Carolyn had a high tolerance for gore. I also learned she liked cigars (oh yes, if you're a man, I'm living your fantasy), but that's another story.  I knew I found my life partner when she went off at length on why "Hellraiser" was better than "Hellraiser II". To this day, we pull out "Army of Darkness" or  the Dark Castle remake of "House on Haunted Hill" when we need to feel the love. Mind you, it's a certain style of horror that works for us. We like horror that follows certain rules and delivers a certain moral lesson. It's alright for someone to get their head sawed off, so long as they deserved to have their head sawed off.

So it was no surprise that one of our first scenic stops in Palermo was the Capucin crypt to view the thousands of mummified bodies arrayed there. This wasn't our first crypt. In 2006 we visited the Capucin crypt in Rome beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione.. That one held the skeletal remains of a few thousand monks that were broken down and reassembled into a variety of instructional dioramas. The crypt in Palermo wasn't art directed in any way. It was just thousands of cadavers stacked up  for viewing.

I know these were people. I mean no disrespect. I believe that all they were as people has gone to a different place. What's left are husks and shells and bones. What we do with those bits, we do for ourselves, not for them. We keep what's left because it's all we have that we can talk to, or frame our fates with.

Still, if this was "Iron Crypt", I'd have to say that Rome won hands down. It's a quantity versus quality thing.  Palermo was all about volume. Lots of dead people dressed up. The crypt in Rome had an internal logic. It meant something to the people who put it together. The decision to leverage the parts of the people who's bodies you are responsible for, to tell a story, is not a decision taken lightly. Indeed, many of the monks interred here asked to be parted out for the diorama. It was magnificent! I kept telling people in 2006 how campy it was and that's certainly true. Sort of a Martha Stewart meets Jeffery Dahmer feel to the place. "How did she find the time to hot glue all those napkin rings together?" "How did they find the time to hot glue all those vertebrate together to make lighting fixtures?" Yes, it was campy, and ghastly. It was also deeply moving. The relatively few people in the crypt with us were as rapt as we were. Nobody took pictures. There was a genuine sense of reverence about the place. This was, in a way, public art and as such, it reached out to the people who saw it.

The crypt in Palermo just felt sad. It didn't help that it took us 4 hours to find the place; a small door with a couple of postcard racks at the end of a parking lot hidden by construction equipment. I couldn't help feeling that these mummies were merely on display for the revenue. Did anyone care for them? In Rome it didn't matter, you were part of the installation and the installation was there to tell you a story.

The tour guides make a big deal of the crypts in Palermo in that "It's not for everybody but..." kind of way. That's too bad. I think it's true. It's not for everyone, or at least maybe it shouldn't be for everyone. I couldn't imagine bus tours wandering through this, but maybe they do.


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