“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.
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.
Dust, toy of the wind
Fragile like men
Weak like the nothingness.
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…