Empire de la Mort

(Don’t forget to check out the video!)
The catacombs were the first thing we wanted to visit during our short time in Paris. The city has a 130 mile maze of limestone quarries beneath its streets. In the late 1700′s, cemeteries were literally saturated and overflowing with decay, and the solution was to exhume and relocate the bones to these quarries. Over the years, the remains of over six million Parisians were stacked in the tunnels.

We eventually located a small, nondescript building that housed the entrance to the catacombs. A small sign warning that the visit is “disadvised to the people suffering of cardiac or respiratory weakness and of nervous disposition” set the tiniest bit of anticipation in motion as we descended a long spiral staircase 130 steps straight down. At the bottom a graph shows the depth of your location compared to the subway, and we tried not to ask ourselves questions about earthquakes in France. A series of dark, empty tunnels eventually led to the beginning of the ossuary, where a sign above the door warned, “Halt! You are now entering the empire of the dead.”

Those in the tunnels with us all stopped within the first 50 feet to view the first collection of bones and skulls, many totally disregarding the flash photography ban. We hung back to let them pass, but not so far to leave us totally alone. Stone plaques commemorated the dates and cemeteries from which certain piles were transferred. Other plaques were inscribed with death-themed maxims in French and Latin. We were able to understand just enough words to know that most were fixated on the fleetingness of life and the certainty of death. We examined the brow ridges of the skulls, guessing whether they were male or female, how old they might have been when they died and what their lives were like before they were deposited in the dark and damp empire de la mort.

The paths continued and the psychological edge from simply being in the presence of human remains shifted into wonder at the sheer volume, piled even into even the smallest corners. After a while your mind just stops trying to process it, until you realize that it took less than an hour to become comfortable walking next to the remains of six million people.