The catacombs of Paris , welcome to the bowels of the capital
After taking you to the most touristic places of Paris, today we are going on a journey that will take you to the holdings of the capital’s abysses, through the ages, life and death: The Catacombs of Paris. But first things first, let’s start with a little bit of history to understand its origin. The Catacombs are ancient quarries that were requisitioned and metamorphosed into a huge ossuary. Indeed many careers were piercing the basements the city, threatening its stability. The basements of Paris had become more holed than a Swiss gruyere so the risk of it collapsing was the main concern at the time. They have therefore been closed and rehabilitated into the Catacombs after many consolidation works. The idea of making an ossuary came from the need to store the bones of aging and unhealthy cemeteries of Paris that were real nests for diseases. Thus during nearly 30 years (1786-1814) the Catacombs collected the bones of all the cemeteries of Paris, which as you can guess, represents a huge amount of bones! That said, you are finally ready … sensitive soul, here’s your last chance to turn back. For the more adventurous of you, follow the guide closely, do not stray from the path, and most of all : do not look back…
If you enter here, abandon all hope
Our adventure can now begin, well almost … Because first, there is the initiation ritual. You’ll have to endure something you possibly didn’t expect: a beautiful three-hour waiting line !!! Just that. What, you thought you were the only brave one to want to wander the underground galleries? You’re still a little naive but it’s ok. That will end soon enough.
Past the entrance, you will find a long spiral staircase, a bridge between the two cities: the living and the dead. At each of its steps, the city noise disappears a little more, leaving a heavy silence. The air becomes more and more humid. The atmosphere is growing darker. Finally, you conquered the hundred steps that separated you from the Catacombs. After passing by the first rooms with sculptures and information panels, you will face an endless corridor, broken by medium sized rooms containing the remains of about 6 million people. Yes SIX MILLION. Six million of our ancestors, 1000 years of death is stored here. Enough to give a more concrete aspect to the many massacres of our history books, like the WWII holocaust or the slaughter of the First Nations of America. As you will notice, most of the skeletons are “mixed”. The femurs are together, the ulnas are together etc. All of this can give a “mass grave” aspect to the place that can be quite disturbing at first but which can ultimately be much more subtle and revealing of the human condition than it seems. Indeed, you can see quite an equality in death (and oblivion) that we don’t have in life. Here, all are equal, mixed arbitrarily, nobles and peasants, fishermen and clerics, convicted and executioners. A return to the irrevocable anonymity, proof that in the flesh and blood, as blue as it is, we are all strictly identical. Enough to make you aware of both your singularity as a living individual, and your impersonality as a simple generic member of the human species. After all, nothing is more like a skeleton than another skeleton… Strange sensation isn’t it? Perhaps, this is what death really is. Losing your singularity. But I am going off the topic, sorry …
Welcome to Disneyland…
Sure, I am losing myself in my digressive delusions, however I hope that if you choose to take the visit without a vicarious screen, you will do the same. Because the Catacombs is really a place for contemplation and self-reflection. Whether it’s through the messages scattered here and there, like many warnings about the condition of life and death, or aesthetics with the staging of some of the bones (like the heart of skull displayed above). It is said that Napoleon III took a tour of the Catacombs with his young son. I like to believe that it was not for the purpose of voyeurism, but rather for philosophical reasons, like a rite of passage to adulthood in a way, or at least an understanding of what death is. But believe it or not, this was unfortunately not the case for all …
We were deeply shocked by the attitude of some, who just didn’t care about the silence signs displayed along the way. As if paying for a ticket gave them the right to disturb the eternal rest of six million people, just to satisfy a selfie craving! Yes, you read that right. Between kids running around replaying scenes of The Walking Dead in the middle of these actual dead, people, a tourist guide that makes s selfie stop in front of those skulls that are “oh-so-spooky, it’ll make a great story to tell to people during coffee break!” while making ghosts sounds, we have had it! And yet these are just a few examplespicked among many others, I’m not even talking about those fools that systematically wanted to touch the bones although the staff desperately and tirelessly repeated them to not do so. Fortunately, the experience is not always the same. Our Parisian friends with whom we were staying assured us not to have seen one of these inappropriate behavior during their visit of the catacombs.