Monday, April 4, 2011

Walking with the Dead

Below the streets, I walked alone through darkened chambers lined with the bones of the dead. Hollow eye sockets gazed out at me as I passed by skulls that were artfully arranged.

I was deep in the Paris catacombs, having passed the iconic sign letting me know I was entering the realm of the dead.

The experience was at once spooky, fascinating and fun. I was surrounded by thousands of dead Parisians. We’d all walked the same part of the world, but what a different world it must have looked to them.

I looked at a couple of skulls, wondering who they might have belonged to. There’s no way to tell – the catacombs contain the remains of noble and pauper alike, and no one’s bones are marked.

What was the Louvre to these people? To me, it’s the world’s best art museum. To them, it might have been during its time as a royal palace. Were they with the revolutionaries who burned a wing of it? Or were they older? It’s possible they saw the Louvre further back, as a fortress on the Seine to prevent waterborne attack.

They probably walked on the same lawns of the Champs de Mars where I spent so much time, but they were never there to see the Eiffel Tower – built long after they died.

The catacombs themselves were made when workers needed stone to build some of Paris’ magnificent buildings. Not the Haussmann buildings you see today, but the older buildings.

In the late 1700s, the French had a problem: cemeteries in Paris were full to bursting – literally. Occasionally, an overloaded cemetery would, say, burst through a wall, filling a cellar next door with decaying bodies.

It was a public health nightmare.

So the French decided to reinter the remains in the existing catacombs. The process took several decades, and it has left us with one of the world’s macabre tourist attractions.

When I lived in Paris in 2009, the catacombs were closed due to vandalism. They’ve since reopened, but with added security measures.

When I walked out of the catacombs, my camera bag was searched to make sure I hadn’t stolen any bones.

To think someone would steal the bones doesn’t exactly surprise me, but it is disappointing. Walking among the dead, it’s clear that the bones were placed in their current location with some degree of reverence, and priests were on-hand during the relocation as well.

Many of France’s elites may be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, but so many others rest in the catacombs. Rumors of ghosts stalking the corridors are popular, and it’s easy to see why.

To reach the catacombs, take the Metro to the Denfert-Rochereau stop and exit to the street level, where you will see the entrance.

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