Friday, July 31, 2009

Stop! It is Here, the Empire of Death

At 3 o’clock, a man came out of the unremarkable black shelter and started counting the people standing in line. When he reached us, he said:

“You know, you might not get in today. Only two hundred people are allowed inside at any one time and the last entry is at 4 o’clock.”

We smiled at him, shrugged, and didn’t budge. For the next hour we painfully inched our way forward under the scorching sun. The line curved through the tiny park, where a rather crazy (likely homeless) woman was loudly scolding all the passing kids for disturbing the pigeons – my youngest daughter was discretely feeding them bread crumbs, and continued on the pavement under the blessed and much sought after shade of a linden tree.

As the fateful hour too quickly approached without the line having made much encouraging progress, the glimpses at our watches grew more worried. The man came back several times, counting again, not saying anything. We too started counting, fidgeting, taking trips to the entrance to have yet another look at the electronic counter that showed how many people were inside. 196. Come on, move, move! Still 196. Excruciatingly seldom, a few people were allowed in.

4 o’clock. There were five or six people still in front of us. A huge line behind us. Our friend and enemy came out again. Started counting as he allowed the trickle of the lucky ones to pass the gates. We were getting ready to plead or to protest, or both, when the miracle happened.

We were let in. Only two more behind us and that was it for the day. Unbelievable!

When the door closed behind us, it felt as if we were abruptly cut from the world of the living. Almost shaking with the emotion of our success, we descended the whirlwind of the 143 steps into the depths of the Earth.

Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort. – Stop! It is here, the empire of death

It’s probably time to tell you what I am talking about. It’s the Catacombs of Paris, the municipal ossuary that occupies a very small part of the huge underground network (280 km) of ancient quarries and galleries upon which the City of Lights dangerously lies.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the cemeteries of Paris – then a city still of a medieval aspect and of 500,000 inhabitants - were overflowing. For instance, the ground of the Cimetière des Saint-Innocents - right next to Les Halles, a public market since 1137 – had reached ten feet above the street level. Pestilence threatened from open mass graves and improperly buried corpses of thirty generations of Parisians. In 1780, a wall of the Cimetière des Saint-Innocents gave in, dumping many bodies into the cellar of a nearby house. Rather late, the authorities decided to condemn the cemeteries within the city’s walls and move all the remains to the underground galleries.


I cannot even allow myself to think of the ghastly work of those who moved the bones at night and rearranged them here with such a morbid meticulousness. What a surreal sight that must have been. History records the nocturnal processions of hearses, covered in black palls, going from the Cimetière des Saint-Innocents to the quarries of Montrouge, in the torchlight, and accompanied by priests. The blessing and the consecration of the Catacombs took place on the 7th of April, 1786. Shortly after, the remains from Saint-Eustache and from Saint-Étienne-des-Grès were also moved there. The more recent cadavers had to be covered in quicklime to avoid putrefaction.


At first, the bones had been thrown at random in an ancient extraction well, only noting the original cemetery. It was only later that they were arranged into the long walls of bones. It appears there are more than six million skeletons in here. They have no names, obviously, but among them are the writer Jean De La Fontaine, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French minister of finance under the rule of Louis XIV, Jean-Philippe Rameau, one of the most important French composers of the Baroque era, and even the revolutionaries: Danton, Robespierre, and Saint-Just, who were transported here directly from the guillotine. In here, all are equal.



The Ossuary has been open to the public since mid 19th century and even Napoleon III came to visit. There is a lot more to it than the 1.7 km that can be visited. Also, the rest of the underground network is prohibited to the public under the threat of heavy fines. But it seems that there are many hidden entrances and clandestine maps available to those adventurous enough or crazy enough… It’s easy to get lost in there…


As I walked the galleries lined with bones, I touched a tibia here, stroked a skull there, took a few pictures. You can certainly find better pictures on the Internet. I didn’t use the flash, not only because it was not allowed but also because it would have felt to me as an impiety, a transgression of a careless modernity into this subdued world of the dark.

They have been what we are
Dust, toy of the wind
Fragile like men
Weak like the nothingness.


It was a hallucinating walk inside a grave, yet, despite the macabre setting and the sombre inscriptions, it was not fear or repulsion but a sense of great peace that was conveyed to me, a solidarity and a strange reassurance for the fate that awaits us all.


In the next post, I’ll take you to a few tombs of kings…

21 comments:

the walking man said...

This was certainly an interesting post. Mass and matter comes in skeletal form as well as suns, moons and stars. That you felt no dread walking amongst the bones of them who this way passed before you is the best part of all.

Catvibe said...

How awesome to have been in that place. The skull is so shiny that it is clearly buffed by the million hands that have touched it. Funny to think of who that person was, and if they ever wanted affection, how many millions would be patting their head after they were gone.

I'm glad you mentioned Rameau, I love his music.

Thanks for writing about this, can't wait for the next installment!

Charles Gramlich said...

Oh wow, that is definitely something to see. I'd love to see it myself.

Geraldine said...

What a fascinating post Vesper. Thanks for sharing this experience, I look forward to more...

Many hugs, G

Rick said...

Your kids must really love you. The memories you will talk about over the years will be more interesting than those of most families...

Karen said...

Vesper - I didn't make it to this one, but I've been to catacombs in Rome and Naples. You are right about the feeling of peace - sort of a recognition...

L.A. Mitchell said...

I had no idea such a place existed. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

laughingwolf said...

love it, thx v :)

as for the hundreds of km off limits, i'm not brave enough to risk getting lost...

jason evans said...

Wonderful post! Thank you so much for the tour. I'm awestruck, even though I knew about the catacombs. It must have been such a potent experience to stand there.

BernardL said...

Thanks Vesper, your word tour was as close as I care to visit. :)

Aniket said...

Thanks a million for the tour. I so wanna see it with my own eyes.

And I loved the pics. Can I use the skull pic as a writing prompt, if you dont mind?

Vesper said...

Mark, I’m glad you found this interesting. No dread at all, indeed. On the Internet, some speak of ghosts in that place, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. As you say, I had the feel of matter, regardless of to whom or to what it belongs…

Cat, yes, awesome and I’m glad you liked the virtual tour. Who knows who that person was?... Interesting to think of that…and at the same time I find interesting that no matter what we are, what we think, what our souls are while we’re alive, when we reach this point we are all the same.
Ah, and I love all that’s Baroque.

Charles, you should go, not just for that but for the whole. I don’t know if you’ve been to Europe, but it’s a completely different perspective from North America.

I’m glad this interested you, Geraldine! *hugs*

I hope they do, Rick… :-) I also hope they have inherited that sparkle that keeps the interest alive…

Karen, I couldn’t go to the ones in Rome – next time! - and I didn’t know there were some in Naples. As far as I know the ones in Rome are of a different nature though, being linked to the early Christianism.

L.A., I’m glad you liked this post. It opens interesting venues for the imagination… Several authors mention the catacombs in their novels, among them Victor Hugo, Anne Rice, Umberto Eco.

LW, getting lost in there would be quite scary… (not to mention probably fatal) But we can get lost in our imagination…

Jason, I thought of you and your cemetery posts when I posted this… I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. Yes, a very powerful experience. I’m still thinking of it and feel overwhelmed…

Bernard, well, sometimes to live vicariously is good enough… :-)

Aniket, I’m sure you’ll see it with your own eyes one day if you want to… You can certainly use the pic. A writing prompt you say? Hmmm, interesting… :-)

Lena said...

that's really a wonderful post. The way you describe it, makes you want to be there and see the things with your very own eyes.
Thanks for this tour :)

Caryn Caldwell said...

That was really cool and absolutely fascinating. I've always been curious about the catacombs. It was really nice to read a first-hand account of them - complete with pictures.

Akasha Savage said...

Wow Vesper...what an interesting post, your photos are amazing. Thanks for sharing. :)

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Vesper, what a remarkable post. I found myself reading and re-reading several times. I have read about the catacombes, but you really brought them to life! (pun intended) Yes, death is the great equalizer. The bones of the celebrated and unknown all pressed together in a macabre collage!

Sarah Hina said...

This was marvelously conveyed, Vesper. I really felt like I was walking beside you in the darkness.

I didn't make it to the catacombs, and regret it. I did see some in Rome, however, and I had the same sense of equanimity and reverence. We are all equal in the end, and it makes you want to breathe in all the life you can, before we reach that point.

I'm so eager to see your next post now! This one was truly great. :)

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

What a fascinating post, Vesper! You've conveyed the sense of the place so richly. It really does seem to invoke so many thoughts and feelings. xx

Marsha said...

Wow!! that would be incredible to see and a litle freaky.

Marilyn Brant said...

I was always too scared to go to the catacombs, Vesper. Now I feel as though I were there! :)

Vesper said...

Lena, I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. Thank you for your kind words.

Caryn, thanks! Such mysterious, intriguing places have always attracted me…

Akasha, I’m glad you enjoyed this. Thank you!

Kaye, yes, “death is the great equalizer”... How right you are. I’m pleased you found this interesting. Thank you, my friend.

Sarah, it makes you want to live more intensely but at the same time it gives you a much more peaceful perspective for the end… Maybe it’s in the numbers, in the conveyed knowledge that you’re not on your own, that it happens to everybody… Thank you for your kind words.
xoxoxo

Thank you, Vanilla! A strange place, of a sad, quiet beauty…
xoxoxo

Marsha, thank you for visiting my blog and welcome! Surprisingly less freaky than one would think… :-)

Marilyn, I hope I didn’t scare you! :-)