Friday, June 1, 2012

The Catacombs of Paris

This post is dedicated to my family, each member of which has a fascination for the creepy, a dedication to the dead, or a penchant for the morbid; and especially to my parents, who always let Rachel, Caitlin and I discuss our funeral arrangements at the dinner table.  Also, this post is dedicated to Chris Fortuna who good-naturedly sat through an episode of Ghost Adventures with me on a Friday night and then requested I visit the Catacombs, as he was never able to.

All pictures were taken and edited by yours truly.  Also, excuse the translation of French poetry;  I did most of it on my own, as I wanted it to retain the meaning in English it has in French, so translation is not always direct.

Où est-elle la mort? toujours future ou passée.
A peine est-elle présente que déjà elle n'est plus.

Where is death?  Always future or past.
Hardly is she present than already gone.

The walk to the catacombs is a longer one than you would expect once you go down the one-hundred and thirty-something stairs underneath the city.  The tunnels where the catacombs are housed is just a small section of an entire network of tunnels that were excavated beginning in the middle ages for the Luticien limestone under the city.  The Cathedrale Notre-Dame is built out of such Parisian Luticiene limestone.  Much later, when the tunnels were rediscovered, they became what is now the metro.

Many of the passageways have street names.

Walking through the narrow passageways of the tunnels to the catacombs is eerily satisfying; dark, damp, a particular scent of water and wet stone.  The floor is covered in pebbles, but where the feet of traveling pilgrims has revealed a soft, clay-like dirt which has a consistency that begs to be kneeled in and dug up by curious fingers.  The ceilings are low, carved out of the rock haphazardly and while some halls are lined with carefully-cut and placed stone, others are merely chinked out of the ground as if intended to be temporary--never seen.

Once far enough into the journey through the passageway, a thick line, black like coal, and gradient of chalk appears above your head.  Meant to guide visitors to the catacombs through the dark halls, particularly before the advent of electricity.  I imagine one could hold a lantern above their head and keep their eyes on the line and arrive safely to a tomb of death, which, while sounding ominous, is a better option than being lost in a tomb of death, so one can see the appeal.

An example of one type of wall.

Not an appealing picture, but you can see the black line I mentioned up on the ceiling.

The walls change in  stone and consistency but there is one look of stone that is more tempting to touch than the others, and despite the smell of wet stone and the faint dripping of water and that the stone feels of wet chalk, when you bring your fingers away from the wall, rubbing them against each other, they are dry.  Just another mystery of stone and geology I will always be aware of and never master, for this is where the water table meets man-made endeavors, and yet all is simultaneously wet and dry.

The first thing you see of any particular note are these sculptures, carved out of the rock.  They were carved by a veteran soldier of l'armée Richelieu who was injured during the conquest of Minorque.  He turned quarryman to supplement his salary after recovering from his wounds.  His name was Décure, dit Beauséjour--or something like that--and at one time was imprisoned at Port Mahon (on Minorque), which is what this carving replicates.

According to French wikipedia, Décure wanted to perfect his work and so began to "undertake the creation of a staircase."  Unfortunately, his quarrying cause a sinkhole which collapsed on him and killed him instantly.  No word on where he was buried.

Le bain de pieds des carriers.
A well for the feet of the quarrymen; used by the workers of the ossuary.

Finally; a long walk and there is faint darkness creeping across the floor, though shadows are superfluous.  The entrance to the actual catacombs is hardly grand.  Carved across the lintel in capital letters:

Stop.  This is the empire of death.

Now, I know I believe in ghosts.  I know that though cemeteries are alluring they always keep me on the edge of fascination and discomfort so that I'm too intrigued to leave immediately and yet always so relieved when I finally do.  I know that watching me in a graveyard (or old country church) is like watching a seven-year-old play hopscotch as I try to avoid stepping on the graves; I would rather step around them.  And I know mass grave-sites are particularly troubling to me, particularly when I'm told about one after I'm already standing atop it.  But--no way in all get-out the empire of death is stopping me.

So I stepped in, of course.

"Et comme tous meurent en Adam, de ême aussi tous revivront en Christ"
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
                                                                                        1 Corinthians 15.22

Ainsi tout passe sur la terre
Esprit, beauté, grâce, talent
Telle est une fleur éphémère
Que renverse le moindre vent

Thus, everything passes on earth
Spirit, Beauty, Grace, Talent
Such is an ephemeral flower
That reverses the slightest wind

The story of the catacombs I don't think is well known, but is also not as gruesome as one would imagine (or, dare I say, morbidly hope?); it begins with understanding the growth of Paris as a city.  For centuries, Paris was merely the size of Ile-de-la-Cité--the islands in the middle of the Seine.  More of a town, than a city, it was surrounded by farm land, meadows, fields and the like.  During the 16th century, coming out of the Middle Ages, and moving into the Renaissance, the size of the city had hardly changed from when it was run by the Romans.  Even the abbey of St.-Germain-des-Prés, which is but a ten minute walk from the islands now, was outside of the city center.  Of course the city was far more compact then, with narrower streets and houses built on bridges, to accommodate for the growing population.

A model at the Musée Carnavalet of  what16th century Paris would have looked like.

It stands to reason, then, that churches for the towns outside of the city center would ahve their own cemeteries--much like the ones you would imagine surrounding the countryside churches in England.  Likewise, Paris, too, had its own cemetery called Cimetière des Innocents and was located in what is now the area of Paris known as Les Halles.

But as my History of France professor would say, "Cities eat people."  Though by the Revolution the size of Paris was still not even a twentieth of what it is today, the city was taking an influx in population, and thus beginning to grow in size.  Surrounding villages were swallowed up by the city boundaries, and people flooded those areas--areas like Les Halles.  What used to be an outlying area perfectly suited to bury Paris's dead, was becoming overrun with people.  As Paris's population increased, so did its death toll; Cimetière des Innocents became crowded not only by the living, but with the dead.  By the late 1700s, near the eve of the Revolution, Cimetière des Innocents was a public health issue.

The project of the catacombs was realized as a solution soon after, the old quarry tunnels already in existence.  The bones of the cemetery were dug up out of le cimetière in Les Halles and moved across the river then dumped into the quarry tunnels.  Other churches, which used to have space for their parishioners after they died also became crowded, and the bones were also moved to the present area of the catacombs of Paris.  The project took years, and at the time were merely piled, not stacked or arranged.

Tout nait, tout passe, tout arrive
Au terme ignoré de son sort
A l'océan l'onde plaintive
Aux vents la feuille fugitive
L'aurore au soir, l'homme a la mort

All are born, all pass, all arrive
To the end of their unknown fate
To the plaintive ocean wave
To the winds the fleeting leaves
Dawn 'til Evening, man has death

A la mort on laisse tout.
At death, we leave everything.

Among the first visitors to the catacombs was future king Charles X (he would not be king until decades after the Revolution), who was then le comte d'Artois, in 1787.  Curious about the place, he is rumored to have gone down into the catacombs with a company of "women of the Court."  However, not long after the bones were moved, and the areas which used to be cemeteries were developed and covered up--swallowed by the city--the Revolution broke out and the bones in the catacombs were forgotten.

By most.

In fact, during the Revolution many of those who died during certain uprisings or in prison massacres were buried straight in the catacombs, a practice largely hidden from the people.  Those remains and years are marked clearly now.

After the Revolution the interment of bones from local church cemeteries continued until the early 19th century when Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury inherited the duties of overseeing the quarries of Paris, and thus the Catacombs.  It was he who organized the first visits to the Catacombs in the second decade of the 19th century.  It was also he who had the bones, previously 'dumped' in the quarries, organized and aligned in decorative motifs, including plaques for when the bones were moved, where they were moved from, and bits of poetry about death and it's impending certitude.

Croyez que chaque jour est pour vous le dernier.
Believe that each day is your last.
                                                      - Horace

Hopefully his gives you some indication of how many bones are down in the catacombs of Paris.

Quels enclos sont ouverts! quelles étroits places
Occupe entre ces murs l'a poussière des races!
C'est dans ces lieux d'oubli, c'est parmi ces tombeaux
Que le temps et la mort viennent croiser leurs faulx
Que de morts entasses et presser sous la terre!
Le nombre ici n'est rien la foule est solitaire.

What enclosures are open!  What narrow places
Occupied between these walls, the dust of the races of men!
It is in these neglected places, it is among these tombs
That time and death come to cross their scythe
That of the dead, piled up and pressed under the earth.
The number here is nothing; the crowd is solitary.

Venez gens du monde venez dans ces demeures silencieuses et votre âme
alors tranquille sera frappée de la voix qui s'élève de leur intérieur;
«C'est ici que le plus grand des maîtresle Tombeau tient son école de vérité.»

Come people of the world, come into these silent mansions
Then will your soul be struck by the quiet voice which rises from within;
"It is here that the greatest of masters, the Tomb, holds his school of truth."

The basin below used to hold a torch kept lit by the quarrymen to encourage airflow.
Behind it gives an indication of the number of bones and the artistic ways they were stacked.

There are six million bones down in the Catacombs.  Coming from cemetery's and churches of Paris that existed long before the catacombs did.  Some of the bones date from the Revolution--the 18th century.  But others are much older, having been in the ground of the old cemeteries long before they were dug up and moved here.  While the Catacombs of Paris is the largest necropolis in the world, the area it covers is merely 1/800th the area of Paris's modern city limits.

Mass was once held in the catacombs.

Quarry reinforcement arch, to keep it from caving in.

Credits.  The Catacombs brought to you by:
M. Thiroux de Crosne
M. Guillaumot, inspector of the quarrymen in 1786
restored and augmented by order of M. Frochot
and M. Hericart de Thury, inspector in 1810. 

 Chaque mortel parait, disparait sans retour;
Mais par d'illustres faits vivre dans la mémoire
Voilà la récompense et le droit de la gloire.

Each mortal appears then disappears without return;
But by illustrious acts lives in human memory.
In this is the reward and the right to glory.


  1. Ooooh! I want to see that! I've seen it on TV, but seeing these pictures make me want to walk there. Loved the poetry, brought a tear. Not in a sad way, but in a kind of spiritual way. Very cool.

    1. Yeah, Mom, I think you'd be frustrated by the French--because I can imagine you wanting to know what every word said, like I did. But I think you'd enjoy the catacombs. Though, to be honest, I could see you liking the cemeteries more. You were all I could think about when I was walking through Montparnasse cemetery. I'll have to put up pictures at some point.

  2. Never had the same reaction to cemetaries. Maybe because I have been to so many cemetaries in Boston that are tourist attractions and are filled with people looking for the graves of famous people. They just seem like nice peaceful expanses of grass and trees with rows of headstones. Though I do think those small cemetaries adjacent to ancient churches where the headstones are all at crazy angles and the ground is all uneven are very creepy. (But I also agree with Dickens -- in "The Chimes" -- that deserted or empty churches are very scary, too.)
    It's funny how the bones divorced from their normal context just seem to be "bones" and no longer "remains".
    The movie that has a scene in the catacombs is called "Father Brown" (from the G.K.Chesterton stories). Alec Guinness plays Father Brown (an Anglican priest). The other guy was dressed as a priest also, but was really the villain (Peter Finch). They wrestle on the floor of one of the chambers in the catacombs (they have strayed from the tour....)
    When you go above ground again, can we see some photos of just the normal places on the streets, like the boulangerie, etc? I felt like seeing a little of the every day path on the way to the more spectacular stuff.

    1. I had an experience in London when we went on our Ghost walk where we came up to this little park area behind a church and were THEN told that it was a mass plague-grave. Needless to say, it kind of chills your insides for a moment. But I love them--but my favorites so far are the English countryside parish cemeteries. I could probably sit in them all day, they make me happy. I think the tourist ones would annoy me a tad, as I like them to feel haunting and creepy. (Also, agreed on empty churches.)

      I'll work on the pictures of normal streets and the paths I walk. It's a little awkward to be walking down a little rue and then stop to take a picture. BUT I admit I've known for a while I'd have to do it--and appreciate it in the end.

  3. I always want to comment on your blog, but every time I read it I just get so overwhelmed.

    As soon as I open it the only thing that pops into my mind is:
    "It's too awesome!"
    "And attractive."

    And I feel like an evil crocodile who is paralyzed by your awesomeness and I don't know what to write.

    1. Did you see on my last post that I went to Village Voice, like you requested?? I bought 'Rights of Man' by Thomas Paine and 'A Moveable Feast' by Hemingway. I'm quite pleased with myself. Also, Paris is quite attractive, but particularly are the photos I share. Shall I "prends des images" of ugly things in Paris?

    2. Wah! No, I didn't. I was overwhelmed with awesomeness and attractiveness. I shall go do it now.

  4. Haha, wow! This was amazing Jen, I think you had way too much fun with this. It begs to be the setting of a book, although I am sure it already is.

  5. Wow. This is... incredibly intense. I can't imagine the poetry and stories these skulls and black tombs inspire, as well as overwhelming feelings of clastrophobia or darkness. You have some excellent photos here, Jen, which should serve as ready fodder for future imaginings!

  6. Agreed with Rem. Your blog amazes me and always makes me want to go back to Paris. (Though I don't need much convincing for that.)