Bare Bones Paris: Where the Bodies are Buried
October 31, 2013
by Betty Mohr
I was the first one in line when the entrance to the Catacombs opened. I walked into a structure that looked like a typical building in the Montparnasse district of Paris. It was hard to imagine that underneath my feet there was a subterranean labyrinth of limestone tunnels. I had been curious about that underground ever since I had read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, in which Jean Val Jean, the hero of the novel, escaped his persecutor through the sewers of Paris.
I wore blue jeans, old running shoes, a baseball cap, and a light jacket. I didn’t know what to expect, but with my camera bag slung along my side, I was prepared to shoot pictures. I looked back for a moment to see that a long line had formed behind me. I paid the entrance fee and was ushered to a doorway, which led to a stairwell. I began my descent down the narrow stone spiral. A few bare light bulbs positioned along the cold walls pierced the darkness.
I kept twisting my body down the passageway into the bowels of the earth for about twenty-five minutes (I later found out that the depth of the Catacombs is about the length of a five-story building). When I finally reached bottom, I felt a chill, which I later discovered was 52 degrees Fahrenheit.
I could see dark stone walls, a dark stone floor, and smelled mold and damp earth. I was in a hallway of stone and was enveloped by an eerie silence. I walked for a few yards before coming to a portal entrance upon which was inscribed Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort. I had studied a little French, and translated the inscription as Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death.
That took me back a little, leaving me a little nervous. Maybe I should turn around and go back, I thought. But, a voice inside my head told me that if I didn’t finish the tour, I would regret it for a long time.
I forced myself to enter The Empire of Death and was shocked by what I saw. In front of me were walls of bones--not scattered about, but bones layered into limestone walls. The sepia-colored skulls looked out at me through empty black sockets. I stepped backward, fearing to get too close to the dead faces when I bumped into the wall behind me. It was stacked with brownish tibias and femurs.
The wall felt damp and I noticed that, beneath my feet, the mud-colored, stone floor was slick with water. All of a sudden I thought I heard the walls around me breathing, sounding almost like sighs coming from the bones of the dead. I pushed forward, moving deeper into the cavernous tunnel and was careful not to slip on wet mud.
As I continued, I became more curious and more daring. What would centuries-old bones feel like, I wondered? I put my hand out and touched one of the skulls. It felt like cold stone. I quickly pulled my hand back, and kept walking. I stopped and pulled out a brochure from my jacket. I had bought it in advance of my Catacombs' exploration, and now thought it might come in handy. I began reading about the history of Paris and its location over large quantities of limestone.
When the Romans arrived in Paris, they carved out quarries of limestone, taking the stone to build the city’s buildings. When they began mining the stone, the quarries were outside the city limits, but as Paris grew, it spread atop the old quarry tunnels.
As the city continued to expand, it encroached on the cemeteries that overflowed into the populated areas. One of the worst cases was the Les Innocents Cemetery, which spilled out into the Les Halles area of Paris, posing a big risk to public health. Something had to be done.
Parisians solved the problem by exhuming six million skeletons from overcrowded cemeteries and plastering the corpses into the quarry passages. Those bodily remains make up the macabre displays that are labeled so visitors can see from which cemetery the bones had been removed. There are some famous people whose remains are noted.
For instance, the remains of victims of the guillotine that have been transferred from their original burial pits are mentioned in front of a pile of bones, and include: Antoine Lavoisier, the father of chemistry, who was a victim of the guillotine (1743-1794); and the leaders of the French Revolution, Danton (1759-1794); and Robespierre (1758-1794). But there are millions here who have no gravestones and who have been forgotten.
I slid my brochure into my jacket, and continued my hike through the dark galleries for what seemed a mile until I finally arrived at the end of the visitor’s portion of the Catacombs. Much of the of the 200-mile network of tunnels is closed, with only a small section, which I was exploring, opened to tourists.
I saw a shaft of light and moved toward it. As I stuffed my camera back into my bag, I came upon a stone staircase with arrows pointing upward. This twisted stairwell seemed even tighter than the Catacombs early entry point. As I climbed the steep spiral, I found myself becoming anxious. I couldn’t see anything below and nothing above—all I could see were tiny, twisted, stone steps.
I had been climbing for what felt like half-an-hour and the muscles in my thighs were beginning to burn. When I began to panic at the idea that I might never escape the underground cemetery, I suddenly saw a shaft of light from above and stepped out of the stairway.
I had come up into a small room of tiled beige flooring and white walls. There was a security guard seated at a desk; and behind him, on the wall, was a heart defibrillator encased in glass. I was still breathing heavily from my climb, and I could understand why a heart defibrillator could be of use. At the same time, I was struck by the thought that my expedition into the bowels of subterranean Paris may have been more dangerous than I had anticipated. I found out later that there was a warning at the entrance to the Catacombs that I hadn’t noticed: “The tour is unsuitable for people with heart or respiratory problems, those of nervous disposition, and young children.”
Acroos the room was a door that opened into the bright afternoon sun. The man at the desk smiled at me as I walked out the door. It led right into a typical Parisian street. I looked up and saw a woman on the balcony of an apartment building; a half-block ahead I saw a pharmacy; and further down the street I saw an outdoor café.
I turned back to see where I had exited the Catacombs, but couldn’t find it. I couldn’t distinguish the Catacombs' building from any of the other buildings that lined the street. I felt as though I had been dreaming. I pulled out my camera from my bag and checked the photos. Fortunately, I had taken plenty of pictures, and as I clicked on to the digital images, I saw piles of skulls smiling back at me.
If you go:
Air France to Paris
Hotels: Hotel Lindbergh, 5 Rue Chomel, Paris; www.hotellindbergh.com; a charming, well-run hotel with great customer service.
Hyatt Paris-Madeleine Hotel, 24 Boulevard Malesherbes; www.paris.madeleine,hyatt.com; luxurious boutique hotel close to the historical center of Paris.
Hotel De Sers, 41 Avenue Pierre 1 er de Serbie; www.hoteldesers.com; a deluxe hotel near the Champs Elysées.
Cafes: La Closerie des Lilas, 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris; www.closeriedeslilas..com; Fitzgerald read his manuscript of The Great Gatsby to Hemingway here; other frequent guests include Picasso, Oscar Wilde, and Ezra Pound.
La Coupole, 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse; www.lacoupole-paris-com; Stunning art deco décor; Chagall celebrated his birthday at table 73; Albert Camus celebrated his noble prize here.
Le Procope; 13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, www.procope.com; one of the oldest cafes in Paris; frequent diners include Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Benjamin Franklin.
Catacombes de Paris, entrance at 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau); www.catacombes.paris.fr/en.