Goodbye Paris

What would you do in the City of Light?

Empire of the Dead: The Catacombs of Paris

Catacombs of Paris

It was a sunny spring morning and we walked through the Luxembourg Gardens and down Rue Saint Michel on the way to the Catacombs. Caroline was visiting from the States, and when we got to the entrance to Les Catacombes des Paris, I left her in line to check the information booth for the cost of tickets and to see if there were any announcements. The tickets were reasonably priced, but I found a innocent looking printed paper that said the following:

“Due to security problems, half of the ossuary is closed today. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”

Inconvenience? You should say, “Sorry for the crime against humanity.” You have stolen half of the empire of the dead from us. And you expect us to say, “We forgive you. It’s just a little inconvenience?”

Imagine the meters and meters of bones that you are depriving the living of, the cubits of clavicles, the metric tons of skulls. Paris, you call yourself a democracy? What rights do the people have if not to their own dead?

Catacombs of Paris

I returned to the back of the line barely containing my rage. But then Caroline went to Paul’s down the block and brought back two croissants aux amandes (almond croissants!), and the soft crispiness of the pastry, the layered sweetness of the filling, the crunch of the thinly sliced almonds on top, and the blissful sensations they produced brought me once again under the subjugation of the City of Paris.

Paris, I love you, even though you deny me the dead.

The line to the crypts was long, and as we waited, we heard languages from a dozen different countries. There were Germans! Brits! Americans! Italians! All waiting in line to see the bones of six million of Paris’ dead.

The one group not in attendance, though, were those from the continent of Asia. Neither Indian nor Chinese nor Japanese tourists were present, people groups that generally appear in force in the City of Light but were surprisingly absent to the City of Darkness.

Perhaps their absence could be explained by the fact that these were not their dead, these would not be their ancestors to whom they would be paying their respects. Or perhaps superstition or religious sensibility warded them away from the remnants of death. On the other hand, perhaps it was something far less deep, simply the fact that they don’t have the Bollywood, Shanghai, or Tokyo equivalent to the Indiana Jones’ movies to heighten their appreciation for the netherworlds of civilization.

Whatever the explanation, they were missing a rare opportunity to descend into the crypt and take selfies with skulls to then post on Facebook later, saying, “Hey look at this! This is me in 500 years!”

Caroline getting entombed in the tomb... or at least hoping Indiana Jones would come rescue her.

Caroline getting entombed in the tomb… or at least hoping Indiana Jones would come rescue her.

Finally, it was our turn to go down into the darkness. We began to walk down the spiral staircase… one, two, three… eleven… eighteen, I lost count at 23 steps. I later read that there are only 132 steps that take you down a measly 66 feet and felt embarrassed with myself, but at the time I wondered if the staircase would ever end.

We began walking through the dark quarries toward the ossuary. There are hundreds of miles of caves below Paris, most of which are ancient limestone quarries dug by earlier residents of Paris—from the Romans to the Louis XVI. The tan stone blocks of the Louvre, Notre Dame, and most of the other buildings of Paris were taken from these pits.

Unfortunately, when you have gaping holes deep below the earth, sometimes they cave in. The first cave in occurred in 1774, and they continued every twenty years or so for centuries.

How would you like to be eating dinner with your family in 18th century Paris when your house collapses below you, burying you and your children alive?

The caves below Paris still exist today. All entrances within the City of Paris have been sealed by the police, but every once in a while, a landlord will be renovating and break into some forgotten cave below the city.

Décure's Sculpture of Port-Mahon in the Catacombs of Paris

Décure’s Sculpture of Port-Mahon in the Catacombs of Paris

The way to the ossuary is long and twisting. Barred iron gates block your way to offshoot caves and if you shine your flashlight through the gates you can’t see the end of tunnel. The floor is covered with pebbles and limestone dust coats your shoes. You walk along, feeling all but alone, until some Italian tourist comes hustling from behind and passes you.

Time goes slowly below ground, and it feels like several hours before you stumble upon a sculpture carved out of the rock. The sculptures were by a quarryman named Décure, who in the 18th century carved them after his shifts.

The sculpture in the image above is of the prison at Port-Mahon in Spain where he was held captive by the English after fighting for Louis XV. The whole sculpture was only about two feet high, but the detail is stunning, and of course, it’s a strange surprise to find art like this in the catacombs.

Décure himself fell victim to his own vanity. While carving a staircase to allow people to see his art, he caused the cave in that killed him.

We walked on, following a black line painted on crudely on the ceiling as a guide, the black line to death’s home.

Paris Catacombs

Finally, we reached the ossuary. The sign above the door says, “Come no further! You are entering the Empire of the Dead.” You step through the portal.

There were bones on either side. The walls were lined with bones and if you shine a light to the back of the cave you could see splintered bones as far back as 28 meters.

“Can you actually believe what you’re seeing?” said a British woman to her young son.

“Yeah, mum, I can.”

“I can’t.”

“Dead boooones,” he said with glee. Then later, “There are 99 of these tracts!”

A girl said, pointing to a skull that was cracked and turned upside down, half-scared, half-thrilled, “Oh my GOD, someone died in the most horrible way!”

“How so?”

“Upside down!”

Some of the skulls get caked in the sediment in the quarry. I saw a few covered in small crystals that sparkled in the occasional light. One skull on the corner of a lower level has bullet holes in the back of the head. An execution, we wonder?

The crypt doesn’t smell like decay or death. To me, it smelled like floral perfume, but that may have been the American woman walking in front of me.

Catacombs of Paris

Finally, we follow the black line out of the ossuary, down the abandoned quarries and to the spiral staircase leading back to the City of Light. We are in a rush to get back to the surface and away from all these skulls, but as soon as we make it onto the staircase, we begin to slow, our quads begin to burn, our breath comes slow.

It’s easy to descend into the land of the dead but coming back to life is a lot of work!

The staircase spirals on forever. I lose track of how many steps I’ve taken and the boy behind me who was annoyingly counting each step has lost his breath and taken a break. I trudge on, alone, silently. And then, I am no longer in a stone encased tomb but a drywall room, lit by wonderfully boring halogen lamps. The door is open and Paris is just outside. I exit and breath in the air… a lot of air because I’m pretty out of breath from the climb, and when we leave, I don’t look back at the catacombs or think of the darkness or death anymore for the rest of the day.

  • Hope M.

    sounds like fun! (… or something like that :))

  • Mark Gottlieb

    I’ve heard about these – pretty interesting history for sure. I gather there are also hundreds of miles of underground tunnels and caverns throughout Paris. Explore. Have fun.

    • Working on that, Mark. All the entrances inside the city are sealed and they’re a bit illegal to explore. You have to have a guide who knows the way. I’ve connected with someone, though, and am hoping it works out. Wish me luck.

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