In all my previous trips to Paris, I’ve never been to the catacombs. They run all over the city, though there is only one tourist sanctioned section – home to the bones of old graveyards. The bones did not start here – they were moved because all the city graveyards were overflowing and unsanitary.
When I was younger, the tunnels held no interest for me. Why go look at a bunch of skulls in a wall? Now that I’m older and wiser, I decided that it might be interesting to see what the collected dead look like.
The outside entrance is nondescript, accessed off the ligne 4 at Denfert/Rochereau, and the line is short but very slow. They only allow two hundred people maximum in the tunnels at any given point, and they control how many people can go down at a time. The result is a fitful wait – mine was almost an hour, and I got there not long after they opened. Tickets are 10 euro, and another 2 if you want to get the souvenir coin. I did – it made me think of the gold coin Greeks would give to Charon, the ferryman on the way to Hades.
There is no elevator, nor handicapped accessible way to descend. It’s a steep spiral staircase, and packed earth slopes.
I found I really liked how quiet everything was, once I broke away from the gaggle of talkative teenagers in front of me. Echoes get muffled, water drops sound amplified, and there is the stillness of undisturbed earth. It’s not an accurate term, I guess – undisturbed earth. They built the tunnels, after all. These are not naturally occurring caverns like in a mountain. These are labyrinths built by man. And the first third of the walk is not all skulls and crossbones. Rather, it’s an explanation of the geology of Paris, the great ancient sea and the limestone it left behind.
After some more dimly lit corridors, passing by miniature cities carved into the walls, the quarrier’s footpath (a natural well where workers could rinse off the dust), you hit a wonderfully creepy sign above an archway. It reads:
Ici c’est l’empire de la mort
“Stop. Here is the kingdom of the dead.”
So foreboding – I thought it was great.
And sure enough, upon passing through the archway, the walls are lined with bones. Primarily femurs and skulls, which confused me after awhile. I asked one of the caretakers I found where all the finger bones were. In response, he shined his flashlight to the back of the catacomb walls, explaining that ribs, fingers, and all the pesky bones which didn’t stack well got thrown to the back. Poor bodies – their ribs and wrists akimbo forever.
After awhile, I could see why, at the entrance, there is a sign saying that children or those who suffer from claustrophobia might have problems. The lines of bones go on for far longer than I thought they would – each stack marked with a notice of the original graveyard. Most of the Parisian graveyards got emptied here, and it shows.
I went through several different emotions walking the tunnels. I was curious, then sad, then reflective, then superstitious. I got most superstitious whenever I saw that some idiot had graffitied on a skull. That is going to be a problem after they die – I can see the original owner of the skull showing up and beating the newcomer for his disrespect. It can’t be good luck, to deface the bones of the dead. That’s ancient law, isn’t it?
And I felt bad for all these bodies, just stacked economically along the corridors. Thousands of bodies, thousands of souls, now a tourist attraction. I took a selfie or two, but it felt weird to have the bones around me. I suppose if you don’t put stock in the power of the dead, or believe in an afterlife, then the whole thing would probably be no more than a notable historical decision. The graveyards – the Court of the Innocents most notably – were unsafe and dirty. Better to store all the bones and then bury people outside the city.
That got me to thinking about how many bones have settled “on top” of the Catacombs. These bones are a couple of hundred of years old (roughly), and they go on for a good long distance. What about our bones – how many more millions of people have lived, died, and been buried? How many bones have turned to dust under ours, before our fancy caskets made disintegration a slower process?
See? It’s a morbid, but important, conversation to have with oneself in the dim light of the dead eye sockets. They probably didn’t wonder about such things. Most of them were probably poor, wrapped in a sheet and buried en masse. Death was far more prevalent and immediate back in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This is reflected in the poetry on the wall. There are couplets about the uselessness of fighting death, but they’re upbeat. There’s a real sense of “Carpe diem!” down in the Catacombs, probably because no one down there is carpe-ing anything. The very real end of life is calling out in stone for the living to go out and treasure what they have, since once interred that is the physical end. There is also a real sense of peace – that a life of hard work has met some sort of justified end. I find it comforting, frightening, and helpful all at the same time.
Above, it’s drizzling. The line still stretches out.
That’s all for now – I’ll write about the evening in my next post. I think the dead deserve their own little post in the world of the “living”- if being online can be considered thus.