In the spirit of Halloween, I recall my experience in the catacombs underneath Paris, a series of dank tunnels that were used to quarry stones then transformed into a crypt. It is the resting place of six million skeletons, originally moved in the 18th century from cemeteries around Paris. Pause for a moment to let that sink in. Back in the 18th century, 6 million bodies would have roughly been ten times the population of the city. I can only imagine the tenuous job it would have been to move so many bones from Parisian cemeteries to underground tunnels.
To reach the crypts, you enter the old mine entrances and it seems to be pretty normal. There are signs that tell you a little about the history of the stone quarries and you get to walk into the tunnels. Information on the walls describe the purpose of the mines and the engineering lessons and discoveries for 18th century workers. In some larger rooms, you pass intricate carvings of the city that show you a little of Paris’ history.
You don’t go deeper into the tunnels, the humidity does not change and the ground is still damp. However, something internal, a primal instinct foreshadows a drastic shift in your underground journey. The sparse lighting seems to yield longer and more menacing shadows, even though the dim lights are consistently spaced along the path. You reach a doorway that eerily reminds you of horror movies set in medieval times. “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” is the message engraved above the entrance, translated to “Stop! This is the empire of the dead”.
(side note: I couldn’t help but think of the Lord of the Rings. Gimli’s line,”The way is shut. It was made by those who were dead, and the dead keep it. The way is shut” came to my mind.)
In the crypt, bones are stacked higher than your head, skulls decorating the edges of the walls of bones. Femurs are stacked high to form a sick symmetry that seems never to end. You dare not take too many deep breaths, in fear of smelling some haunting odor of rotting bones. Nobody strays from the paths and curious hands come nowhere close to the bones. Some skulls are tinted green, and others are a dusty brown and all equally frightening.
There is a perverse interest in how the bones. Why are they all so clean? Who took the time to stack them with some aesthetic appeal and why would they even need aesthetic appeal? Where did all these femurs come from? Are the small ones children femurs or tibias? Occasionally there are different arrangements, mosaics of bone that form an interesting design. The path is quiet. Tourists in hush whispers point to different walls and utter,”did you see that skull?”.
The air at the surface is not especially fresh. In fact, you exit through an unmarked door in an alleyway. However, those first deep breaths are gives you relief and dissipates the tension in your body unknowingly held. You can’t help but be a little shocked at the bodies underneath your very feet.