Sunday 1 December 2013

Catacombes de Paris

The Paris catacombs are yet another morbid landmark which I had become eager to experience. And this experience was wholly unlike any other.
The vast network of winding tunnels which snake within the belly of subterranean Paris were originally created during the quarrying of limestone. The tunnels took on an entirely different life when the cities largest cemetery 'Cimetière des Saints-Innocents' was closed due to unsanitary conditions in 1780. The remains from within the cemetery were exhumed and bought to rest in the quarries, creating the labyrinth of the dead which can be seen today.

Upon leaving the quarries and entering the ossuary, one is greeted by the words 'Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort.' (Stop! Here lies the empire of death') carved above a pillared doorway, and the tunnels change dramatically. Suddenly, one is face to face with a skull. Staring with hollow gloom in greeting to the morbidly curious. I fully confess that I was left breathless with the shock of being face to face with death so instantly, and the full reality of the catacombs is, there is no escaping the countless hollow stares. Nothing can prepare anyone for the actuality of seeing the bones of six million people.

The chill of the subterranean took on an entirely new level in the 'Empire of the Dead'. My body and heart seemed to ache with the cold and terror of this incredible place. The experience of the catacombs was, for me, almost two hours of entirely silent reflective thinking. Slowly walking through mile upon mile of what were, people, was indescribable. The catacombs generated a mixture of emotions; terror, disbelief, horror and largely sorrow. My heart ached for these poor long dead, long forgotten people. And of course the inescapable thought that the fate of these people is the fate of us all.
In a sense the catacombs were very beautiful. Delicate, often artistic displays of remains carefully arranged with love and care. A wonderful, awe-inspiring monument to the people who rest there. The inscriptions which appeared in some parts of the ossuary were appropriately reflective and thought provoking, maintaining the atmosphere of solemn sorrow.

Upon my ascent to the surface I found myself shaken and weak. The experience had been incredibly overwhelming and had chilled me to the bone, both physically and mentally. I toiled wearily upwards until eventually I stumbled forth into the bright sunlight of a gai Parisian street, where life continued as normal.

'Ainsi tout passe sur la terre. Esprit, Beauté, Grâce, Talent. Telle est une fleur éphémère. Que renverse le moindre vent.'

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