Most Parisians are all too familiar with the underground network of tunnels that criss-cross for over 130 miles (214km) beneath the city, filled with stressed commuters, lively musicians and of course the sound of the metro and RER doors opening and closing for around 4.5 million passengers per day. It’s hard to believe that just metres away from all the hustle and bustle of life going on, both above and below ground, lies the eerie world of Les Catacombes de Paris; A labyrinth of tunnels lined with the bones of over 6 million people.
For the past three years I have planned to venture into the l’Ossuaire Municipal of Paris but have always been too busy with the living to find time for the dead. I must admit that I have often wondered what it must feel like and how creepy it would be to visit the catacombs. For me it has maintained an air of mystery since the very first time I heard of its existence. So much so that I even contemplated exploring the lesser-known pathways if I could ever find myself a lesser-known guide!
After queuing for an hour, confirming what many writers and artists have spoken about through the ages; that human beings are fascinated by death and the afterlife, I finally paid my 4 euros and embarked upon my descent into the depths of the underworld. Which, I confess I did with so much excitement that I almost tripped down the 130 steps which began our adventure! Once we were on firm, yet damp and uneven ground, a seemingly endless, dark corridor twisted ahead of us. This long, narrow pathway cut into the limestone walls is lined with the odd engraving and slimy streaks where moisture drips down from the ceiling. If it weren’t for the occasional wall light, making out anything, including the person in front would be an impossible task. I found myself amused at my previous thoughts of daring to enter into the restricted areas with nothing more than a flash light which could fail at any moment… peering off into the vast caverns beyond the iron bars I could see nothing but darkness. The temparature dropped gradually to a chill as we wandered along towards the gateway to the Empire of the dead.
Once we had dared to continue past the ominous sign announcing our arrival at the destination of death – put in place at the time the bones were moved from the cemeteries into the old quarries, during the 18th century – the visit really came into its own. The walls were lined in places 10 ft deep with femurs, tibias and skulls which at first reminded me of images in films of Hades and the voyage into the underworld.
To be honest due to the sheer quantity of bones it’s easy to be overwhelmed and at times along the 1.5km trail I almost forgot that the walls were not made out of stone and that I was walking between centuries of extinguished lives. Most of the remains are stacked neatly and sometimes rather artistically displayed with plaques announcing which cemetery they came from. Poems and other writing about death are interdispersed along with various information about the remains, the quarries and some formidible warnings to the mortals that have set foot in this resting place.
As my eyes were taking in all that there was to be read and remarked upon, my mind wandered forward and back in a similar way that these anonymous bones transcend centuries. In the future it is likely that most of us will be cremated, (I suppose ashes to ashes will make more sense) or perhaps even be completely disposed of… not even leaving behind a trace of dust in one of the body dissolving machines of the future. I found myself looking back, imagining what these people must have lived through and feeling even a little jealous that they still have something left behind even centuries later to impact on the lives of someone still living. They may be anonymous (a pertinent reminder that we are all the same) with separated mixed up and broken bones but they are still in existence… something that many of us will not be! Perhaps that is why we are so desperate to leave a trace of ourselves in photos or posts online – In the past writers have often treated the permanence of death and tried to ‘cheat’ it by leaving behind their work. Today, maybe we are more aware than ever before of our brief existence on this Earth.
“Where is death? Always in the future or in the past. It’s only just present, when already it is no more”
Finally, as we approached the end of our little escapade into the calmer realms beneath Paris, the ceilings heightened and we were obliged to climb some 80 steps, happy to rejoin the light of the city streets back in the world of the living.