“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.
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:
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.
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:
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.”
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.