Crossing the Threshold: Mortality and the Paris Catacombs

‘Stop! This is the empire of the dead!’

The air changes suddenly. It’s still, as if someone has pressed pause on a music player, pulled the needle from the grooves of a record. The tunnels are soundless, like the cold dark of space, and I find myself cast suddenly adrift as on a moonless sea. The hairs on my arms and neck rise, and a gasp escapes me, fleeing into the dark. My muscles tensed, I hold my breath to halt any others. Frantic beating is the only thing I can hear – the sound of my blood rushing in my ears – and that’s when I realise that everyone else here has also gone quiet.

In front of us is an archway, squared-off and unadorned except for a plaque above it inscribed with the warning in French: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort! I see the outlines of bones through the archway, and cannot bring myself to move. Not usually bothered by the eerie or macabre, the feeling holds my heart and lungs in its grip and squeezes so tightly I contemplate ending my tour of the Catacombes de Paris here. My eyes wide and my breathing shallow, another chill skitters over my skin like scattering spiders. After a quiet internal struggle, I force myself to push forward, and hide my trembling hands with crossed arms.

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A warning / Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in the trip down the old tunnels, those that housed no bones, I had been fine. One-hundred and thirty stairs down and leaving behind the tourist-friendly exhibition rooms, I pulled my jacket tighter around my body and crossed my arms as my eyes adjusted to the gloom. A far cry from the gaudy lights of the city, the tunnel stretching before me was dim, the rusting industrial-grade lights spilling sickly yellow patches as far as the eye could see. The cloying air, thick with stone-dust and moisture was strange to breathe in as I walked the uneven, debris-strewn floor, but I began to make my way down the passage, acutely aware that the trains of the underground Métropolitain were thundering somewhere far above me.

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Entrance to the Catacombs Tour / Wikimedia Commons

Stones crunched beneath my boots as I pressed onward, expecting any moment to see what I knew resided in these old quarry tunnels, parts of which date from the Roman era. Beside me, my travelling companions discussed their surroundings in low voices; behind, I could hear other tourists. A young boy chattered and bounded along with his parents in tow. I wondered why one would take a ten-year-old down here – the sign back on street level advised against bringing children and those with nervous dispositions – but his enthusiasm made me smile. I supposed he was courageous enough.

Many tourists and locals alike remain oblivious to the underground passageways that lie beneath the City of Light. Above, shades of white and pale blue daub the buildings, the chilly air swaying the branches of the trees in the parks. Complimenting it all are glass and steel structures such as the entrance to the Musée du Louvre, and strange self-cleaning public toilets on street corners, reminding the city-goers of the modernity that weaves its way through the historical gaps. At night, the city glitters, and every half-hour until midnight, the Eiffel Tower dazzles in a display of shimmering lights.

Down here, I forgot about that world above.

p1020227The passages wound their way into the gloom, long and twisting, and as I traipsed down them I read the pamphlet I picked up at the entrance. There should be a sculpture here soon, carved by a quarry worker of the prison in which he was incarcerated long ago. As I finished reading, I looked up to realise I had found it. Elaborate and large, it was set into the wall, but I found it little more than a quaint distraction. How long until I saw what I came here to see? I was here on a pilgrimage of sorts, a literary one. Though my favourite book is set before the Paris government used the Catacombs for its most recent purpose, what is in here is one of the only remnants of the history described in the novel. I was here to see the ossuary.

The Cimetière des Innocents, the Cemetery of the Innocents, was a graveyard near Les Halles in Paris that first began interring the dead in the 12th century. Popular, but covering an area only one-hundred and thirty by sixty-five metres, it soon ran out of space as the city grew. Mass burials began. The church overcrowded the cemetery, allowed it to become so overfull, that six hundred years later, the weight of the cemetery grounds burst an adjacent cellar wall and flooded the room with decomposing bodies. So, on 9 November 1785, authorities declared this cemetery and others like it closed, and proclaimed that they would exhume the remains and store them in the disused mining tunnels beneath the city. Since then, for over two hundred years, the Catacombs have pulled visitors seeking the macabre.

“I had a quick check on the internet before we went to Paris, but all I really knew was that it was an ‘underground cemetery’ of sorts,” says Stephanie Lowe, 26, as she recounts her own visit to the ossuary. Unlike me, she didn’t come to Paris seeking out the Catacombs. Instead planning to follow her Lonely Planet guide around the most recognisable landmarks of the city, something pulled her to the attraction all the same.

“I was apprehensive beforehand as I was worried it would be confronting,” she continues. “But my worries went away during the initial walk through the tunnels to the ossuary as my focus was on the stairs and navigating the path.”

And so it was for me, also. The repetitive tunnels became predictable, and I forgot my apprehension as I viewed the artful sculptures and marvelled at the craftsmanship. The only thing worth worrying about was how best to place my feet to avoid slipping on the loose stones of the tunnel’s floor. What the pamphlet didn’t tell me was that there would be no warning when I finally reached the ossuary, or how visceral my reaction would be.

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Wikimedia Commons

And so that is how I came to step across the threshold to death’s empire. Through my nervousness, I giggle quietly at the concept. When I look around, though, all silliness vanishes. The bones are artfully built up into a wall, mainly with long bones – femurs and the like – layered with a row of skulls here and there. They grin at us as we shuffle by. Barely daring to look, we are a funeral procession for the long-dead. In the light, dimmer still than those we had left behind, I can make out the silhouette of leftover bones. They lie in shambles at the back of these walls – I make out pelvises, mainly, and other bones I cannot name from memory.

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Piles of bones – don’t touch!

It feels disrespectful to take photographs, to illuminate the dim, low-ceilinged tunnels with bursts of artificial light, and I nearly don’t grab my camera from my bag. The moment is fleeting, however, and I retrieve my camera. These people are no longer people, I remind myself, and they haven’t been for hundreds of years. Skeletons are not our entirety, and besides, they cannot see or feel. I am still apprehensive, though. A primitive (or is it modern?) fear keeps me on edge, thrilling my blood, but as I lean closer to see the bones in detail, I know they won’t hurt me. I will not be cursed.

To understand that these skeletons were once the scaffolds of human beings and to realise they died hundreds of years ago produces an existential fear in me, but the fear of the skeletons themselves begins to fade. The bones are desiccated, dry and porous; I knew that if I dared to touch them, they would feel rough and gritty. I don’t touch them. I crouch down and stare into the empty eye sockets of a former someone’s grinning (or was it leering?) skull, but then I take a photograph and move on.

“There’s no plaque or display to commemorate those that are buried there, no idea of whose skull I was looking at,” Stephanie comments later. “An individual’s skeleton could be scattered across the kilometres of the tunnels. It takes away the ‘human’ aspect of the bones.” It is a notion I had contemplated neither during my visit, nor in the time since, and it strikes me.

Academics call this type of increasingly popular tourism thanatourism, or dark tourism, and though perhaps not as ‘dark’ as sites such as Cambodia’s Killing Fields or Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Paris Catacombs are ‘dark’ enough that it provides an interesting case as to why someone might come seeking out such places as part of their travels. It is different to death camps in that tourists here presumably do not come due to the need for a commemoratory experience or a need to connect with cultural or family heritage.

“I think it’s the curiosity of the human mind,” Stephanie says. “We are interested in the morbid and the supernatural, things we can’t necessarily grasp. No one truly knows what happens in death and so we are fascinated by it.” Dark tourism allows tourists to indulge their curiosity about usually-taboo subjects in a socially acceptable way, providing them with an opportunity to form their own personal view of mortality, even if their primary motivation to visit such a sight was not originally based on that, such as with Stephanie’s experiences and mine. At our core, whether we acknowledge it or not, we all feel the overwhelming curiosity to come to terms with society’s ultimate taboo.

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Wikimedia Commons

Confronting these manifestations of death and accepting what they mean lulls me into complacency. As I follow the designated path and view the bones, I become used to their presence. The ingrained fear falls away, and the bones frighten me no longer. Free of the adrenaline begging me to run away, I begin to see the beauty of the ossuary and the artful placement of the bones. One section of ‘wall’ has skulls arranged in a large heart shape. Several sections have plaques inset and engraved with passages in French, Latin, and archaic Italian that I cannot understand very well, but speak of bones and mortality from what I can gather.

Stephanie, too, found the ossuary beautiful. “I liked the ‘artworks’ that were created using the bones,” she says. “In particular the heart shape created on a wall using skulls.

“All of the remains on show are well presented,” she continues. “It was educational and also a little disturbing, a combination I’m unlikely to experience again. It’s a very authentic experience.”

The selling point for her was that there are no fake skeletons, or ghost stories to go with the tour to cheapen it, and her words ring true. What makes a visit of the catacombs confronting and unique is that, besides the small history course at the beginning, one experiences the ossuary on one’s own terms. There are no tour guides regaling stories of dubious authenticity; neither are there tales of the supernatural. There is only what can be seen and felt in the moment, only the facts one’s own senses provide. It is entirely personal. And it is that notion that remains with me as we find ourselves at the end of the tour and knock our elbows against the walls as we ascend eighty-three spiralling stone stairs to emerge, blinking and new, into the daylight of the oblivious world above.

Admission and how to get there:

Currently, the Catacombs of Paris are closed until Thursday the 9th of February 2017.

The Catacombes de Paris tour is located at 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. Opening times are from Tuesday till Sunday 10 am – 8:30 pm, with last admission at 7:30 pm.

Tickets for the Catacombs and Exhibition are 12€, or 10€ concession, and audio guides are available in French, English, Spanish and German for 5€ each. Click here for more information.

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