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I see dead people...

Our exploration of Paris took a turn for the macabre today as we ventured into the 14th arrondissement, south of the Latin Quarter. Twenty metres below street level is a series of underground corridors, well over a mile in length, in which vast amounts of bones and skulls are neatly packed along each and every wall. This subterranean world is Les Catacombes, the result of a plan to empty Paris’s medieval cemeteries and store the dead, or what was left of them, in a series of disused quarries south of the city centre.

The brains behind this idea, interestingly enough, was Louis XVI – the king whose actions led to the Revolution and thus to his being guillotined in 1793. In 1780, he’d decreed that the Cimitière des Invalides (Cemetery of the Innocents, the last resting-place of Parisians since the middle ages and located in what is now the Les Halles district) be closed down on the not unreasonable grounds that it was overflowing with the dead and had as such become a public health risk. Five years later, Louis decided that all of the bones in said cemetery be moved underground – specifically, to the ancient quarries below Paris that by the 1780s had also become a serious problem as they were starting to cave in. In effect, Louis was solving two problems at the same time – an exception as far as this most indecisive of monarchs was concerned.

The plan quickly expanded to take in over 150 cemeteries in the Paris area, and the transferring of the remains of generations of Parisians continued until the mid-nineteenth century. At first, the bones were just dumped in the old quarries, but over time the people in charge of this project – which continued throughout the upheavals of the Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and beyond – started to get creative. Héricart de Thury, who was appointed Inspector-General of Ossuaries in 1810, eventually turned the Catacombes into a proper monument to those for whom it had become a final resting-place. As a result they became a popular place to visit.

Today, it’s still very popular, if the two-hour queue that we encountered was anything to go by. As is usual in such situations, we hoped that some of the people in front of us would get bored and decide to go elsewhere, and we eventually got chatting to the Americans directly in front of us.

When we got to the front, we paid our €8 and descended via a spiral staircase that looked like it had been taken from a Metro station fire exit into the subterranean world – and, after walking through several passages we came to the entrance of what was proclaimed as “l’Empire de la Mort”. Another sign advised us not to touch the bones or smoke. One can readily understand why – back in the day, this place would’ve been lit by gas rather than electricity.

Inside, we encountered rows upon rows of bones, piled up and neatly arranged. Some areas had signs indicating which cemeteries the bones had come from, and when they’d been transferred to the Catacombes. Others were fronted by quotes from various ancient poets, a couple of whose names I recognised.

It’s an eerie place down there, as you walk past hundreds of skulls neatly packed into the walls that seem to be staring right at you. Who were all these people, I wondered? What stories could they have told, and what would they have thought about becoming a tourist attraction centuries after they’d died? Is this the sort of place where we’re all going to end up at some unknown point in the future?

As one sign proclaimed: “Ou est elle la Mort? Toujours future ou passée Apeine est-elle presente, que déjà elle n’est plus

An ossuary, it seems, is a good place for contemplating one’s own mortality. Right in the middle, there’s an altar. Here, masses are occasionally held for the dead, many of whom are no doubt the ancestors of today’s Parisians. Down there, the history of the city is quite literally staring you in the face.
Not that showing marks of respect were the order of the day for all of the tourists. OK, so they’d queued for a couple of hours to get down there, but blatantly disobeying the rules about not using flash photography and doing silly poses in front of the piles of bones struck me as a little disrespectful.

That’s nothing compared to the locals who like to go down there at night for illegal raves and all sorts of other cheap thrills; if caught, these catophiles risk fines of €60. On the plus side, though, the Catacombes have served France well in the past as the tunnels were used as a headquarters by the Resistance during the Second World War. Just around the corner from where we’re staying is a memorial on a wall to one of the Maquis, Jean Tailleu, who was executed by the SS in 1944. I wonder if he spent some time hiding from the Germans below the streets?

Back in the present, I tried to rationalise things and wondered out loud why there were only skulls and bones from limbs. Where were the ribcages and the finger-bones? Maybe they don’t last as long. I tried to take some decent non-flash photographs down there, but it’s trickier than you’d think. Even using the night-time settings can only do so much in a place where it’s always darker than the night.

In the end, we decided that this is one of those places that you only need to visit the once. Like the Eiffel Tower.

After I’d climbed the stairs to get back to the world of the living, an attendant asked in English if he could check my rucksack. There are obviously some people for whom taking photos just isn’t enough.


gare aux goûts said...

Macabre but enjoyable reading! Where will you go today? By the way... Louis XIV.

Nick said...

Today we go to Montmartre! Glad you enjoyed it, although the king in question was definitely Louis XVI.