Passports 6: The Quiet Skulls Beneath Paris

A small quiet square, Place Denfert-Rochereau, in the 14th Arrondissement of Paris looks like so many such places.  Beautiful and expensive apartments line the streets that radiate out from the plaza.  Small gardens and vest-pocket parks abound.  The locals and tourists hurry along…heading into the Metro or hailing a taxi, catching a bus…or simply strolling along the nearby Rue Froidenvaux or Blvd Port-Royal.  Outside a nondescript building, a line has formed.  People are waiting for something.  They wait quietly, chatting with each other.

They are in line to buy a ticket and descend into the bowels of the city where the dead dwell.  It is a subterranean cemetery.  It is the Catacombs de Paris.  And it is a very intense experience.

Several signs warn that the tour may be upsetting to young children or “people with delicate nerves”.

This will be a brief post.  I will let the dead do the talking.

One day in the 19th century, a hole opened up in the middle of a street nearby.  This prompted the authorities to descend and investigate.  What they found was a vast subterranean graveyard that had been forgotten for many decades.

The story is quite simple, really.  In the center of Paris, there are few cemeteries.  A family cannot purchase a plot, bury the dead and walk away.  No…you ‘rent’ the plot for twenty years and then…then to make room for more of the dead, the bones are dug up and collected.  And the plot is then available for someone else.

What to do with the bones?  The solution was simple.  Find an underground chamber…a very large chamber and place the bones (and skulls) there.  Do the math.  This is going to amount to a sizable number of bones when you consider the number of dead and the number of years involved.

This, then, is the reason for the Catacombs.

I descended a winding staircase that seems to be dropping into the lower levels of the Underworld of mythology.  Finally, a level surface to walk.  A long tunnel.  A very long tunnel.  Other visitors spoke in hushed tones.

Then the Ossuary.

I had read about this place and I knew what I was going to look upon…I just had no idea of the scale of the place.  You cannot count the bones or the skulls.  They number in the millions.  Each small alcove had the femurs stacked as neatly as firewood, thin firewood.  After a certain number of bones were the skulls…all in a row.  On top of the pile were scattered spare leg and arm bones.

And this went on…and on.  It went on until you became overwhelmed by the sheer number of skeletal parts you were walking past.

Touching the human remains was strictly forbidden.

I stood at eye level with a skull.  I looked into the sockets.  Nothing fearful filled my heart or head…only my attempts to imagine this individual as a living entity.  Was it a female?  Was she pretty, young, in love, lonely, broken-hearted, happy, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a lover?  Was this skull once a young man, brave, lonely, wanting love, feeling desire…fearing death?

Some may call this place macabre.  Some may say it’s morbid.  Some people miss the point.  I found this place to be the most intense celebration of human existence and death that I have ever came upon.

How often does one get to commune with a million relics of a million lives?  The detritus of mortal bodies after the soul has taken flight.

 

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