6 July 2017
Underneath the pavements of Paris lies a world that even most Parisians do not know. I’m not talking about the sewers, though that system holds enough fascination in its own right to merit a museum—the Musée des Egouts de Paris—and well worth a visit it is. (Or maybe I’m just biased. It was my ancestor, Jacques Gabriel, who designed the sewer system.)
The hidden world to which I refer is that of the Catacombes. These catacombes are not like those of, say, Rome, where early Christians hid to escape from governmental persecution. These were disused quarries that never housed anybody living at all—and were filled in far more recent times. In 1785, it was decided to solve the problem of overflowing cemeteries by exhuming bones and removing them to the tunnels of the old quarries. The ossuaries thus created did solve the problem, at least temporarily—and during World War II, the Resistance used them as headquarters.
Today visitors enter via a nondescript dark green door set on the southwestern edge of the intersection just outside the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Once we’ve purchased our tickets, we descend a series of steps and then follow long, dark tunnels further down, running laterally, until I frankly have no idea what part of Paris lies above my head.
Eventually we are led out into an open chamber with a doorway in the far wall. An inscription above the doorway reads: “Arrêtez. C’est ici l’empire de la Mort.” (“Stop. Here is the Empire of Death.”)
It is too late to turn back.
On the far side of the doorway the bones begin. Heaped and stacked in an implausibly precise mounting of skulls and femurs, tibias and rib bones, they stand at a height of 5-6 feet and, in some places, run back into chambers 40-50 feet deep. “Whoever had to fill this place had the worst job in the world,” says my 14-year-old, Alex.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine the poor souls engaged in the process: the gravediggers, emptying the lonely plots (“What if the person had just died?” says ten-year-old Evan. “Would there be bits of skin and hair and stuff?”); the haulers and stackers, working in the near-total darkness, lanterns flickering, and painstakingly arranging the remnants of their fellow citizens.
Perhaps to mitigate the horror, the authorities have interspersed the bone stacks with whitewashed plaster, occasionally in the shape of a cross, but more frequently as a canvas on which to write appropriate sayings about death and the finality of the grave. One example:
“Aussi tout passe sur la terre
Esprit, beauté, grâces, talent
Telle est une fleur éphémère
Que renverse le moindre vent.”
Loosely translated, that reads
“Everything passes on the earth
Spirit, beauty, grace, talent
It is only an ephemeral flower
That is blown away by the slightest wind.”
Many pundits weigh in as one moves from chamber to chamber, though as we go I find myself curiously uninterested in translating their words. Perhaps it is because the writers seem so distant and their sentiments insubstantial, while around us rise the yellow-white bone towers and the grinning skulls. Who needs intermediaries to interpret our own thoughts in the face of it all?
Our pathway bends and twists, at times doubling back on itself. Hundreds of bones. Thousands. Millions—hundreds of millions, in all likelihood. The area of the Catacombes open to the public (somewhat over a mile) represents only a small segment of the total.
It is said that there are other entrances, unmarked and unlit, that emerge into the open air on the edges of Paris. Shortly before our visit a film crew infiltrated one of these clandestine entrances, in search of the answer to the death of an unknown videographer, who died of no apparent cause—except pure fright?—while illegally exploring a closed section of the Catacombes. His video camera had been found, with final footage that was reminiscent of the fictional Blair Witch Project, but no hint as to what had spooked him so badly. The crew themselves got lost, though they were later rescued. The mystery remains.
It is on our minds as we complete our visit, stepping carefully along the dim, damp corridors. A set of winding stairs leads up and up . . . Another open chamber, then a final ground-level room where uniformed officials inspect all bags for stolen bones.
Once vetted we emerge, blinking, into the bright streets of Paris, and the damp clutching at my stomach begins at last to go away.
Originally published in Whistling Shade, Fall-Winter 2011.