Americans in Paris, part II

“Whenever we hit a city we haven’t been to before,” our friend Lynn told us as she put us on the bullet train to Paris from Aix en Provence, “we try to spend at least part of our time underground. The Paris sewer tour is a good idea, but if you have to choose, see the catacombs.”

Turns out to have been good advice.

 abandon hope

Corridor after corridor of tibias and skulls, stacked against the walls like so much firewood, run beneath the city’s 14th arrondissement — and that’s just the part open to official tours. The tunnels open to the public represent only about 1/800th of the underground labyrinth beneath Paris, much of which includes human remains like these, removed from public pauper’s cemeteries and potter’s fields beginning in the late 18th century in an attempt to ward off public health crises.

As Colin Jones, Paris’s recent “biographer,” explains, the removal of almost 2,000,000 bodies to these underground chambers can be understood as “part of a massive change in the cultural meanings of death” during the Enlightenment. Older civic orders had made death — and cemeteries — central to the public life of cities: graveyards routinely cropped up alongside jails and churches, at city entrances, on prime real estate, in part to remind people that death was just around the corner and they’d better behave accordingly. By the end of the eighteenth century, officials worried that Christian burial rites were polluting the atmosphere and causing epidemic disorders. (This fear cropped up even in remote places like New York. A Columbia University professor, S. L. Mitchill, a member of the literary club I’ve written about elsewhere and a fan of the new French chemistry, tried to convince New Yorkers that “human carcases, buried and accumulated for a long series of years, have poisoned the air in many parts of christendom, and that by the concurrence of both municipal and spiritual authority.”)

The catacombs have captured travelers’ imaginations since their inception and have turned up in imaginative works from a brief reference in Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” to Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum to the Tomb Raider III expansion, “The Lost Artifact.” (A more extensive listing of pop cultural references can be found here.) Though the removal of human remains to the catacombs began just before the Revolution, the new repository provided a convenient place to deposit victims of the guillotine during the 1790s. Successive waves of revolutionary leaders and their victims joined the anonymous masses below. In the early 1800s, Napoleon decided the catacombs of his empire should rival Rome’s, and so set workers about piling the bones into some of the impressive displays we find today — with skulls dotting the tibia walls in occasional patterns like crosses and hearts:

criss cross applesauce

Consider it an early historic theme park, if you will, an early version of Pirates of the Caribbean, designed to transfer control over death and its spectacles from the priesthood to the imperial state, or from one tyrant to the next. “Great Danton, and the Dantonists; they also are gone,” writes Thomas Carlyle in the voice of Robespierre: “Down to the catacombs; they are become silent men!” And in our next episode, Robespierre’s body will make its way to the same final resting place. If the guillotine was designed to be a democratic dispenser of death, the catacombs could serve as a democratic tomb. After all, one man’s as good as another, whether he’s a candlemaker or a king.

losing your head?

Lynn had told us she found the catacombs moving, the sign of thousands of years of common humanity, all sharing the same fate and so standing in symbolically for the whole human race. To some degree I felt the same way, though my primary reaction to the spectacle was something other than strictly emotional. More specifically, I was impressed by the human body’s durability. For a while I’ve assumed I’d be cremated when I die, not wanting to take up too much space and — even moreso — not wanting to have my body pumped full of chemicals and dolled up for final display. But I’m seriously reconsidering, simply out of respect for how long these bones have remained intact, in spite of being dug up, moved, reordered, fondled and rubbed by generations of tourists. If these bones are the most persistent part of our organism, perhaps we can afford them the respect of lasting as long as they damn well please, leave them behind as a loveletter to future generations:

have a heart

This thought echoed another I’d had while we’d stood in line for the catacombs. Near the entrance we found a sign announcing that the last admission was at 4 pm. (We were lucky enough to arrive at 3:55.) My ability to read in French is rudimentary at best, and I mistook the verb “fermer” (to close) as having some relationship to “ferment.” That is, I thought that the sign’s announcement that the catacombs closed at 4:00 could be read as announcing the last chance to get in before things spoiled. What a great idea! And how French! Things get better and better as they age — like wine and cheese — and you played a game of chicken with them, letting them ripen as the last chance approached. Who would give in first? Would you eat the cheese and drink the wine, worried that they’d finally be spoiled tomorrow, or would you push it to the limit and find yourself disappointed? It was a variation on carpe diem — hold off from seizing the day until it has fully matured. Save that kiss for the last second of the sunset. This almost seemed like the sort of thing from which my friend Pandora could extract a code of living, maybe even one Jeremy could sign on to.

But alas, on returning home and asking a French acquaintance, he pointed out my etymological misstep: “‘Fermentation,’” he wrote to me in an email, “comes from ‘fermentum’ (leaven), itself coming from ‘fervere’ (to boil), whereas ‘Fermeture’ (closing) comes the French verb ‘fermer’ (to close), derived from Latin ‘firmare’ (to make firm). That’s what it boils down to, case closed. Sorry to trample your fantasy.”

A lesson in French reading

Indeed. He did tell me, though, that as a teenager he’d sneaked into the catacombs several times, including portions closed off to the general public. It was where the cool kids went to get stoned or throw parties; adventurous tourists, he said, might hire a drug dealer or some low-level thug to take them into the restricted areas, where you risk receiving a ticket from the cataflics, the police assigned to roam the tunnels looking for illegal intruders. Next time I’m in Paris, maybe that’s the day I’ll seize. If the opportunity is ripe.

13 responses to “Americans in Paris, part II”

  1. MF says:

    “I was impressed by the human body’s durability”

    I was watching a documentary on a Tibetan mummy on the Discovery Channel (I love it!) last night. Some Indian workers uncovered a perfectly preserved Tibetan mummy in the Himalayan hillside around 1985. A group of scientists determined that a monk had mummified himself (500 yr ago!!) by starving for 3-4 months and stranulating himself. When starving, the internal organs that start the decomposition process shrink until they lose the acids that decompose the body. In a dry and cool area like the Himalayas this meant that the body was untouched and preserved for hundreds of years. Amazing.

  2. Scotty says:

    I love that you dedicated a whole post to the catacombs. When I toured them, I was taken by the mixture of the grand, singular issue death, and the multitudinal commonality of all those damn bones just mixed together like a giant necro-orgy.

    As I walked, I found myself playing a game and focusing on one skull or another and trying to imagine the trajectory of this or that life. I remember the one question I kept wondering is whether or not it was a happy life.

    Also, I don’t know if you were aware that the catacombs started as a Roman quarry. In fact, the walls show the patterns of the rounded Roman chisels. Darn it! I love Paris.

  3. ssw says:

    I did too. Just not the price tag this year. Yikes.

  4. LP says:

    There’s something bizarrely lovely about being in the presence of vast piles of bones. On a visit to Prague several years ago, I went to Kutna Hora, a church decorated entirely with bones and skulls. It’s initially shocking to wander among the chandeliers, chalices and other works of “art,” but after a while it begins to seem rather… normal. Except for my then-8-year-old niece, who was a bit freaked out by the whole thing. How did your girls respond to the catacombs?

    Photos of Kutna Hora are here.

  5. it was molly’s favorite part of the trip (as it was mine and stephanie’s). anna couldn’t kick the feeling that it was extremely disrespectful to the dead and was kind of freaked out by the whole thing. it made for great conversation about what constitutes respect for the dead and to whom such respect matters.

  6. LT says:

    so cool…in january, john and i are meeting my mom in london after our honeymoon and taking her over by chunnel for a few days. she’s a parisian vierge (i’m pretty sure that’s ‘virgin’ if my rusty french still serves). i hadn’t thought about the visit to the catacombs as one of our day trips…thanks for the suggestion.

    anybody watch the first PBS installment of “The War” last night (Tim and Jen)? The beheading poster up above is not unlike multiple still images you’ll need to turn away from in this documentary– many of them surprisingly taken in the Philippines.

    and then there’s audrey chan’s art video boomerang, which fills us in on how many iraq war beheadings we can watch on the internet if we’re at all interested.

    sorry, i’m off topic. it was the poster that did it. war is such a bummer.

  7. Tim Wager says:

    I love your travelogues, Bryan, but dem bones kinda freak me out. The rows and rows of skulls remind me of Eliot’s echoing of Dante: “I had not thought that death had undone so many.”

    Didn’t see the documentary, LT. I was at the Hollywood Bowl seeing Rufus Wainwright sing Judy Garland. I had not thought that such fun could be had by so many.

  8. Dave says:

    Ah, no wonder I felt that great disturbance in the Gay last night.

  9. Rachel says:


    This is possibly the first “inaugural Paris visit” account I’ve ever read that didn’t mention food. Well…unless you count the fermentation.

    I’ve never seen subteranean Paris. The Roman catacombs of San Priscilla, which I visited this summer, include a wall painting that’s believed to be the first representation of the Virgin Mary. Cool, huh?

    So…what else did you do? I love how you just sneak in the passing reference to Aix-en-Provence, as if the Monaco part of the trip were no big deal. Do tell!

  10. To tell you the truth, I spent so much of my summer in 18th-century Paris (most of the letters I was working on were written by Americans there in the 1790s and early 1800s) that my brief engagement with Paris was intellectual more than sensory. Add to that mix that we were at the end of a very expensive trip (the exchange rate was killing us!), the fact that we had a full kitchen and grocery nearby, and the fact that we had kids with us, and we simply didn’t eat out as much as you’d expect. In fact, our best meals were in the south (the best meal of all was an incredible seafood platter in Nice). The one night we did all go out as a group of adults in Paris we went to a lovely little neighborhood place I couldn’t begin to tell you where, but the sad fact is, when you live where we live it takes a hell of a meal to impress. This was kind of a medium-range West Village meal: perfectly pleasant, but not designed to slay you.

    In fact, I enjoyed myself more at coffee/breakfast, sitting in cafes.

    I actually tried hard not to make this a family travel blog. For those readers who are sweet enough to want to see some pictures we posted on line for our families (we love you Rachel!), you can find them here. They’re mostly from Monaco; a few from Paris.

  11. ooh. we did eat good bread and cheese and drink good wine on a daily basis. but then again, we were with slade. what else would you expect?

  12. Demosthenes says:

    I am really lucky to have the opportunity to visit Paris this spring break with my choir. Needless to say we dominate. Hopefully we get to visit the catacombs when we go.

    By the way, I especially loved the line “It was a variation on carpe diem — hold off from seizing the day until it has fully matured.” awesome

  13. TC says:

    Actually, in French, “ferment” can either be a verb form meaning “they close” or a noun meaning “a microscopic organism that promotes fermentation.” Though the two are pronounced differently and are etymologically unrelated, as you say.