A fossa de parrini, Gangi, Sicily

For the most part, Christians and Jews are buried lying down, while Muslims are buried standing up. Or so I’ve heard. In Gangi, Sicily, there’s a Catholic church where the bodies are standing up alright, but in full view of those who pay to see them.

The tomb of dead priests, known as a fossa de parrini, lies beneath the Mother Church of Gangi, San Nicolò. For a €2 entrance fee, you can have a guided tour, in Sicilian. Somewhere, there’s a body drier, once used to dry out the corpses, draining them of their bodily fluids. I am sure I saw it but I’m blanking. I’ve blanked a lot of what I saw that afternoon.

The nice wooden casket and the frescos on the wall of the first chamber don’t quite prepare you for what’s ahead.

Each of the 100 or so priests has his own niche with a short poem telling of his work on earth. From what I could see, most of them were based in Gangi from the late 1720s to around 1870 or thereabouts. One of the more famous Gangitanis, Giuseppe Fedele Vitale, author of the very, very, very long epic poem on how Sicily was freed from the Saracens, is in a casket. This is presumably because he committed suicide and didn’t quite make the grade for the perpetual exhibition.

Come ye living to visit the death before the death visits you, for it is always better to forestall the fate.

This is what the sign over the entrance translates to – had I known, I might not have ventured any further. It’s a macabre place. Very peculiar. Some of them seem to be in various stages of hanging about. If you can get past the faces, the bodies themselves are posed as any human might stand or loll about.

It’s a popular spot and has been for a while. I found this post online:

On 22 April 1932 Maurits Escher leaves for Italy, together with his friend and painter Giuseppe Haas-Triverio. Their first stop: Sicily. In the square in front of the church in Gangi a couple of street urchins ask them if they would like to see some dead priests. A large key was produced and, surrounded by a gang of shouting boys, Maurits and Giuseppe descend into the crypt. Almost all the walls are pockmarked by rows of niches containing mummies. Escher took some photos and created this lithograph as soon as he got back home.

I’d love to know what prompted Gangi to mummify its priests. Were they to have the same inclination today, there’s a helpful set of seven instructions available online.

To be burned or buried is something I’m still deciding on. I’m leaning heavily towards cremation though – and can safely say that mummification was never on the cards.



@ 2024 Mary Murphy