This post is dedicated to my little buddy Alejandro who was learning about the Catacombs in school at the time we visited. Sorry it took me so long to send you more pictures. Hope I can make it up to you with this post!
This was Shawn’s first visit to Paris – actually, this was his first visit to Europe. We did all the “must-do” things activities, like going up the Eiffel Tower, walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, and visiting the Louvre and Notre Dame. I had been to Paris before, but somehow had missed going to the Catacombs. Admittedly, I knew little to nothing about them. All I knew was there were a lot of old bones underground.
Our last full day in Paris, still coughing from my awful case of bronchitis, we stood in line for 2 hours waiting to get in. Luckily, it gave us an opportunity to cross a couple things off our of Parisian-stereotype bingo. Only 200 people are admitted at a time due to the cramped underground space, so hence the long line.
We made it through and started to descend the slippery staircase into the ossuaries. Immediately we lost the couple who had been standing in front of us. It was a little spooky at first going through the tunnels – all I could hear was the dripping of water and the sound of my own breath.
A long, empty passageway
The Catacombs represent the interface between the history of Paris and the Earth’s geological evolution. Forty-five million years ago, Paris and the surrounding area were covered by a tropical sea. Dozens of metres of sediment accumulated on the sea bed, forming over lime the limestone deposits visible in the Catacombs today. Geologists worldwide call this period in the history of the world the Lutetian period, alter Lutetia, the Gallo-Roman name for Paris.
From the Catacombs Official Website
I took a deep exhalation as I started to hear people up ahead of us again. Eventually we entered the small space that houses an exhibition of the sea in Paris from 45 million years ago. We looked around for awhile, but while it was interesting looking at a bunch of old rocks and plaster sea forms, we were there for the bones.
When we walked through to the first cavern, this is the message that greeted us:
“Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death”
Hmm, that’s a little ominous.
Then we started to see skulls. At first, it’s a little creepy being surrounded by thousands of skulls, the empty space where the eyes once were, seemingly staring back at us.
The ossuary contains the remains of approximately 6 million Parisians, transferred there gradually between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries as graveyards were being closed because of the risk they posed to public health. Early in its history, the catacombs were a hastily thrown together bone repository. In the early 19th century, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, head of the Paris mine inspection service, undertook renovations that would transform the underground caverns into a visitable mausoleum.
I whispered to Shawn after viewing a few more of these rooms, “Someone may have had a very unhealthy obsession with this project.”
There are quotes and signs all over the walls, integrated in with the stacked bones.
Thus ends everything on earth:
Mind, Beauty, Grace, Talent,
Short-lived like a fleeting flower
Blown down by the slightest breeze.
There are symbols built into the walls.
We walked out a different door from which we entered, up from the dank cavern into the bright midday sun, and ended up on a regular looking Parisian street where, of course, there’s a gift shop.
We picked out a magnet for our collection and went up to pay. The shop was busy and I put the magnet down expecting to pay quickly and get out of there. The cashier looked me in the eye and said, “Ça va?” I replied back in (my bad) French, “Ça va bien. Et vous?” Now, this might have just been an example of a smug Frenchman expecting the dumb American to not know how to reply. Maybe he was trying to be rude. But, I took it as a sign – I needed to slow down. Tourists are sometimes guilty of rushing through interactions – just using the people around them to get what we need, often forgetting to just say “hello, how are you?”. I had this happen to me on a number of occasions while traveling where someone would come up with us on the street and just ask us for help – no hello, bonjour or hola.
Every person presents us with an opportunity to really see them – to at least acknowledge their existence, even for a moment. For some reason, this small interaction cemented what we had just seen in the Catacombs. Those bones had sat there for years in a pile, discarded as merely a health issue, not the remains of human beings. But someone chose to see them for the people they were, even if most of them couldn’t be identified. At first, I thought it was perhaps a little demented to spend so much time and energy to create something that could be seen as creepy or maybe even a little OCD, and maybe it was. But now I’m thinking it all comes down to respect.
What do you think? Creepy? Respectful? A little from column A, a little from column B?