24 years ago on the Monday that followed Easter, we were boating on a beautiful lake in southern Umbria with a friend. He asked us if we had ever heard of “The Mummies”. Mummies? Naturally Egypt and King Tut suddenly popped into mind. No, not those kind of mummies…. So we went.
We drove to a tiny village that was so small and seemingly deserted that I was sure the tiniest of villages called it tiny. We walked up to the little church, and through a door into the basement. Laying on the dirt throughout this basement area were… yeah, mummies. LOTS of them. They were in excellent condition. These were neither the King Tut style mummies, nor the classic horror movie mummies. Instead, they were bodies that were buried here up until the 1800’s.
It turns out that there is a certain microfungus in the dirt here. That, in combination with the ambient temperature and lighting, has caused most of the bodies buried here to naturally mummify. I’m not going to lie… it is a little spooky!
The History of The Mummies of Ferentillo
In the 15th century, the people of the little village of Ferentillo got themselves a brand new church, “La Chiesa di Santo Stefano”. This new, bigger church was built on-top of the original, smaller church. They built the new church mostly above the old one, such that from the ground up to about 12 feet of the old structure, they made a basement. The basement was to be used for burial of the dead.
At the time, burial was very different than it is today. When someone died, they were simply placed inside as they were found. Caskets and clothing were luxuries for the extremely wealthy.
They continued to bury the dead in the basement of the church for nearly 300 years, until a new set of burial laws required them to build a cemetery outside of town.
When they went to move the bodies, they discovered that all who were placed here had been somehow mummified.
The most well-known of the bodies discovered is that of a Chinese couple that was on their honeymoon. They were traveling to Rome when sickened with the Plague. The woman’s body was found next to her dead husband, praying at the steps of the church. Anther well-known mummy here was that of a man killed by the bell in the church belltower. One can clearly see the bell’s damage to the body.
The Mummies Today
Over the years, I have gone back several times. We have taken friends there, and as our children grew to ‘nightmare-free mummy age’, we would take them. Naturally, when we started our tour company in Italy, we couldn’t help but make it part of some of our itineraries, so we visit rather regularly.
With time, what was our little secret became somewhat known. Visitors became more frequent, and the mummies began to decay. To make matters worse, some visitors beacon to bring home ‘souvenirs’. As such, you no longer see the mummies exactly as they were buried. They are now kept in a slightly more museum-like setting. They are still in the church where they were found, but they are behind protective glass. Additionally, they now have opening hours and full-time custodians to give tours to the few visitors that come. They even have a nominal entry fee of 3 Euro per person.