One of the last bodies laid to rest in the Catacombs of the Capuchin monks in Palermo, Italy, was Rosalia Lombardo. Her preserved corpse is the most famous of the 8,000 bodies once found in the catacombs. Only two years old when she died on December 6, 1920, apparently of a bronchial infection, Rosalia has gained fame because of the excellent preservation of her body. She is often referred to as "The Sleeping Beauty."

Rosalia LombardoHer embalmer was Professor Alfredo Salafia, an Italian chemist who discovered a way to preserve bodies using a special formula. Starting first with animals then people, Salafia perfected his process. Eventually, he embalmed his own father.

Once word spread about his special embalming abilities, the relatives of many famous people began to contact him. These included Francisco Crispi (Italian premier, whose poorly preserved body was re-constituted by Salafia in 1905) and Cardinal Michaelangelo Celesia (1904).

In 1910 he tried to launch The Salafia Permanent Method Embalming Company to assist American funeral directors. To demonstrate his technique, he came to the United States and embalmed the unclaimed body of a recently deceased man at the Eclectic Medical College in New York. According to Christine Quigley's book, Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century (which remains the best source of information about Salafia and Rosalia Lombardo), the man "had died some ten days earlier and his body exhibited black and green areas on the face and neck. Fifteen gallons of Salafia's embalming fluid were injected distally into the right common carotid artery without draining the blood, treating the cavities, or carrying out secondary injections." Then the body was stored without refrigeration, though the exact location is apparently not recorded. It is safe to assume, however, that it would have been kept in a cool place.

Six months later, the body was dissected. Salafia's embalming technique had done the trick: his green and black patches on the skin had pretty much disappeared. What's more, "The body was well-preserved, with the skin firm, and moderately hard and dry. No odor of decomposition, or fecal odor, was present, only the chemical odor of the embalming fluid."

In September 1910, a second body was embalmed in Syracuse, New York. The deceased, however, had suffered from arteriosclerosis and the embalmer (Professor Achille Salomone, a nephew of Salafia) was unable to inject more than six quarts of the fluid. Six months later, when the body was dissected, attendees concluded that Salafia's method worked wherever it was able to penetrate the tissue (which wasn't universally possible). According to embalmers, this is still the case with injected fluid. In 1911, his company began to sell the embalming liquid to American funeral parlors.

The details of his life from this point are vague. A year later, his fluid was no longer advertised, and Dr. Salafia was back in Italy. In 1920 he embalmed the body of Rosalia. Salafia died in 1933 without releasing the secret of his embalming fluid.

The secret embalming fluid

Researchers figured that Salafia's formula was most likely an arsenic-based treatment, which was popular at the time that Salafia was perfecting his embalming process. According to the Handbook of Death & Dying by Clifton D. Bryant, Salafia was a student of Dr. Tranchini from Naples who was a proponent of arsenic-based embalming. Tranchini's formula used one pound of dry arsenic dissolved in wine to create a two-gallon solution. It was then injected into the femoral or carotid artery. Many believed that Salafia's method was a variation of this formula.

In fact, arsenic was not part of the formula. Recently Italian biological anthropologist, Dario Piombino-Mascali of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano tracked down the formula by contacting Salafia's living relatives and asking for permission to search his papers. Among the papers was a handwritten account in which Salafia recorded the formula that he used to preserve Rosalia's body: formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.

Here's how the formula worked, according to an article on National Geographic.com: formalin (a mix of formaldehyde and water) was used to kill bacteria; alcohol dried Rosalia's body; glycerin stopped the body from drying out too much; and salicylic acid stopped the growth of fungus.

But, according to Melissa Johnson Williams, executive director of the American Society of Embalmers, "it was the zinc salts that were most responsible for Rosalia's amazing state of preservation. Zinc, which is no longer used by embalmers in the United States. '[Zinc] gave her rigidity,' Williams said. 'You could take her out of the casket prop her up, and she would stand by herself.' "

James M Deem

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Prisoners of Breendonk by James M Deem