San Nicolò Church in the town of Gangi, Sicily, you can visit a crypt containing the corpses of one hundred mummified priests. The crypt is called afossa de parrini in the Sicilian dialect – the tomb of the dead priests. It consists of two large, adjacent rooms connected to the dark basement of the church. Closed on most days, but guided tours to the Crypt and the Oratory of the Holy Sacrament may be held upon request. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the basement was used as the burial site for church dignitaries from the town.
The crypt is composed of a large room where the chapel is situated with the niches that house the mummies of the priests and the ossuary, a semi-hidden place used for embalming, containing the original table on which the bodies were placed for desiccation and natural drying of liquids.
The ancient practice of embalming was similar to that used by the Egyptians; the deceased was treated with special ointments, bandaged and dressed in a cassock. The head was waxed for better preservation, detached from the body and then secured with a stick that started at the bottom. Above each niche, a plate was placed for easier recognition, bearing the name, date of death and a sonnet summarizing the priest’s earthly life. The dates of death range from 1728 through 1871.
A rather creepy inscription is inscribed on the wall above the stairs that lead down to the basement. It translates as “Come ye living to visit the death before the death visits you, for it is always better to forestall the fate.” It is a spiritual warning intended to remind visitors of the inevitable. Entering the crypt’s entrance hall, visitors can admire pictures and frescoes dating back to 1735. On the opposite side of the hall are the mummies of the priests, standing up in the niches, held up by an unseen stick, dressed with a sacerdotal hat and religious garments. A shocking seen for many visitors, who find that some of the mummies are well preserved, most others less so…