Our penultimate day in Paris is speeding past. After completing our pilgrimage to the top of the Eiffel Tower, we race down the stairs, and catch the subway to the 14th Arrondissement, Denfert-Rochereau. A quick meal of crepes, and it is time to for the next stop on the itinerary. We will travel from one of the highest points of the city to one of the lowest, the Paris Catacombs.
The catacombs, or l'Ossuaire Municipal, are part of a vast network of tunnels beneath the city. These were once quarries, providing (from the first Roman settlement) stone for the buildings. As Paris expanded, buildings were erected over the quarries and they fell into disuse. In the late eighteenth century, the quarries were reopened to serve as a repository for the dead.
Over the centuries, Paris' main cemeteries had been overrun with the dead. Mass graves and improper burial, especially during epidemics, had created problems for those living around the city cemeteries. Alexandre Lenoir, a police official, came up with the idea of closing the cemeteries within the city limits, exhuming the dead and moving their corpses to the unused tunnels beneath the city. The work of transporting the dead began, and over the course of many years, the remains of over six million people were shifted into the catacombs.
The catacombs are not easy to find. We searched the streets for quite some time before we located the nondescript entrance. We purchased our tickets and began our descent. The way is placarded with warning signs: "Unsuitable for small children!" "Severe exertion hazard!" These signs were a sobering reminder of the perils involve in traversing the realm of the dead.
Down a long cylinder of spiral stairs, corkscrewing more than a hundred steps into the darkness. Dizzy and tired of the downward wind, we finally reached the lower level. At this point, I reflected, it would be good to be a dwarf. The tunnel was low and my head brushed rock from time to time.
According to the signs, our route would run 1.5 kilometers underground. It seemed much farther: our tunnel appeared to go on forever. Overhead the sun rose and set, seasons changed, girls switched from woolly tights to short skirts and back again. At last we reached the land of the dead.
A warning sign sits above the entrance to the ossuary: Halt! You are entering the land of the dead. We blithely disregard this admonition and pass under the lintel. What lies beyond is astonishing: the tunnels are lined with great stacks of bones, neatly piled like cords of firewood. As far as I can tell, the bones are mainly arms and legs, with the occasional skull thrown into the mix. The bones that would not stack well—rib cages, for instance—were put somewhere else.
The walls of bones stand nearly six feet tall and they simply go on forever. The remains of six million people are down here. Skulls gape, empty-eyed, at us as we shuffle somberly past. It is a staggering, seemingly endless, monument to death, a reminder of our own mortality.
I think we are all relieved when we reach the spiral staircase on the far side of the Empire of Death. We wind our way back up toward the light, the living. There we must endure an exit search to make certain that we have not stolen any of bones while passing through the ossuary. The two skulls and small pile of bones behind the guard suggests that this has been tried.
Back home through the darkening afternoon. Home for a birthday party, a meal for my lovely wife, followed by Chocolate Eclairs and ice cream.