At first the corpses in Palermo all look the same: stiff, emaciated, and vague in the features. Some of the attempts to keep them straight seem ludicrous. Monks come first, often swaddled in their habits like babies. Then priests; here ecclesiastical ranks are vigorously maintained. Bishops wear miters and more expensive fabrics. But clothes slip down on the shrunken frames and obscure the features, whatever might be left of them. One of the great lessons of the crypt is that clothes decay too; corpses decay first, and then the possessions they bring, becoming corpses of themselves in their turn. You would have to be an expert on eighteenth and nineteenth century costume to make much of the shredded residues. Not quite true perhaps—as in a child’s drawing, you can tell what the clothes are trying to represent and can summon up the right kind of collar or waistcoat from a Daumier sketch you vaguely remember.

The expressions remind you of Daumier too. Once they begin to turn their necks and stretch their jaws, you interpret the corpses’ strategically deployed spasms as interested looks or angry stares or cries of distress. They may be only crude imitations of character, but like a dog who can stand up or a horse who can count, these people hold your attention just because they can manage something like a smile or a pout.

more from Cabinet here.