‘You know, a bone would be one hell of a souvenir,” I say to my mom. “Stop,” she chides, but can’t hide the grin that stretches across her face.
After a chilly three-hour wait, we finally reach the entrance of the Catacombs of Paris. The idea of seeing the 6 million Parisians laid to rest beneath our feet has been a spontaneous one. The fact that it is just days before Halloween adds to the mystique.
We descend several hundred steps to the mile or so of tight, quiet passages that lead into the Catacombs. Six feet high and wide enough for three average-size men to stand shoulder to shoulder, these corridors had been opened in the late 18th century to allow workers to move the remains into this place that would become known as the World’s Largest Grave. The Catacombs became the only solution when the ancient cemeteries of Paris had crumbled and threatened to give up their dead.
Tasteless as modern graffiti may be, the initials of some long-dead French mason carved into the wall are fascinating to see; “C.G, 1781.” Simply ambling along in these tunnels, hundreds of steps beneath the bustling streets of Paris, is fascinating and oddly serene. There is something calming about walking in a tight space, seeing your breath rise in pale clouds in front of you, feeling your boots crunch over stones that had been there for longer than your own country had existed, stepping over puddles where the condensation dripped from the ceiling. After half an hour of walking through the tunnels, stopping to read the signs about how this whole area had once been a limestone quarry, we finally arrive at the ossuaries.
“I think this is it,” my mom says, looking up to read the faded words carved above the entrance arch and translating the French to English. “Stop. This is the Empire of the Dead.”
Like Aeneas venturing into the underworld, I step through the archway into a place not meant for the living. In a moment, the curious energy that had filled me, the kind one experiences when venturing into a haunted house, is gone.
All around us are stacked piles of femurs, ulnas, pelvises, spines and skulls. The piles were placed on either side of the tight tunnel, stretching onward into the haze that settles over a place like this. Mounds of remains 51/2 feet high, the bones are mostly white, although some have started to yellow. Some of the piles are stacked in a pattern: five columns of femurs followed by a column of skulls, staring out at the visitors like silent watchmen, guardians of their dead brethren. These are not piles of people cast aside and forgotten; rather, these remains have been carefully moved from one place of honor to another.
In front of some of these precise assemblages, a plaque has been carved. Many simply note the churchyard from which these people had been taken and the date they had been exhumed. Others bear quotes about death. “Oh, Death! May your judgment be filled with equity,” my mother translates. But many of the stacks of bones bear nothing. No sign to mark them, nothing to note who these people had been. Looking at these nameless bones, some disfigured green from centuries of accumulated moisture, I feel a profound sense of loss.
There is a loneliness that fills the Catacombs. Part of it is the cold. Breath rises in small, white wisps before you, hair stands on end, and a chill breeze moves almost inexplicably through the tunnels, reminding you that, however curious you are, this is not a place to tarry. Part of it is the smell. There is no rot of decay in the Catacombs, no reek of corruption, but rather a simple tinge of death. The air is stale, and, with each breath, one can’t help but remember the sickness that took so many of these people away.
But the biggest part is the silence. Only 200 people are allowed in the mile-long stretch of tunnels at one time, and, with everyone going along at their own pace, it is easy to traverse the space in solitude. Occasionally, around the altar used for Mass or the great basin constructed of skulls, a few people gather, but, for the most part, the experience is a solitary one. My mother and I are simply two quiet wanderers, each on our own path through the Empire of the Dead, rather than companions. Voices, already hushed in reverence, are stifled by the twisting passages, as though the gaping mouths of the dead could swallow the din and stop it in its tracks.
Eventually, after 90 minutes of walking in that hallowed space, we see that the tunnel begins to slope upward again. The path through the Catacombs, which had twisted and looped, revealing small altars set up for the visiting family or a memorial made of bones, straightens, becoming a singular, linear track upward. The walls turn from stacks of white femurs to plain yellowing stone. Without a word, we depart, leaving the Empire of the Dead behind us.
As we climb the steep path up toward the bustling streets, I remember my joke about snagging a souvenir and feel a little sick. This is sacred ground, a monument for all humankind to see, but, more than that, those are the remains of everyday people. People who had loved, laughed, cried and been mourned when they died. To defile them, to take a bone from its slumber, is the worst thing I could imagine. There is very little defilement in the tunnels. A few names carved into signs or the stones of the walls, almost nothing on the bones themselves. The worst is the name “Fernando” etched into the forehead of a skull. I remember the hot anger in the pit of my stomach and my mother’s eyes as we passed the graffitied bones, and could only imagine the guilt and shame that would haunt the person who would actually remove one from this space.
After a long climb up a set of steep, twisting stairs, we reemerge into civilization. As we brush limestone dust from our pants and compare the accrued white mud on our shoes, my mother looks at me and says: “What did you think? Not too freaked out?”
“No,” I reply. “That was just . . . wow, you know?”
“Yeah,” she agrees, casting one last look at the nondescript exit from a description-defying space. She turns her gaze upward to an iconic Parisian window box bursting with geraniums. She snaps the image, as if to reaffirm that life can blossom, even mere feet from the city of the dead.
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1 Ave. du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
Open daily 10 a.m.- 8 p.m., except Mondays and May Day (May 1). Last admission is an hour before close. It can get a bit chilly underground, even in the summer, so bring a jacket. Tour typically lasts 45 minutes. Audio guides are available in French, English and Spanish. Admission to the Catacombs and exhibition around $11-$13.