We boned for the first time yesterday and it was amazing! I don’t know why I have never done it before but am pleased to say I’m no longer a virgin. The entrance to the Catacombs of Paris is an unassuming door in the wall on the street. So unassuming, that we walked by it in the dark the night before without even knowing. There are two ways to pay for this descent into the Paris underbelly: Book a ticket online for 29 euros, which allows a person to skip the line, and may be a better option when it is actually busy; in the summer months the wait can be over three hours. Or, stand in line and pay 18 euro at the door. We opted for the latter and it truly wasn’t that long before we were entering Paris’ realm of death.
The dizzying circular stairwell down to the catacombs boasts a modest 100 steps that are a lot easier to take on the way down than on the way up. It seemed only a quick jaunt before we emerged into a crowded subterranean room designed to inform visitors about the site. We took this opportunity to slip by a few large groups of bored-looking teenagers and started down the narrow, low-ceilinged earthen hallways toward the catacombs. I was excited yet nervous about how I would react to the experience, which I did not share with Cameron until we had emerged. In some places the ceilings were only a few inches higher than my head so that he walked hunched for most of the trek to the site. While I am not normally claustrophobic, I could feel my chest tighten and focused my breathing at some points. Nevertheless, we hurried through the tunnels, intrigued by exactly what we would see. The only stop along the way was to view a beautiful, high arched and well-lit tunnel beyond a gate to the right. It turned out to be a tease as this was the last of any such architecture for the remainder of the tour. It does seem that further investigation is warranted, however, I assume that will be a future expedition.
Again, the tunnel opened up into a wider chamber with more information about the how and where the bones were found, discussing some of the challenges, particularly concerns about whether pathogens could be passed along. Having only skimmed over the majority of the panels, I can only assume that they wouldn’t allow hundreds of thousands of people access if there were any health concerns. They did convey that many of the bones were from those who had died in epidemics and that the signs throughout indicated which hospital or area that a particular group of bones came from. The sign above the entrance warned: Arrète! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.
Beyond this threshold, the reality of the catacombs was immediately impressed upon me. It’s impossible to relate the entire experience in words but I was initially struck by the sheer volume of bones. Particularly when considering each of the skulls belonged to another human being who lived and had lives in Paris hundreds of years ago. As I took my photos, I found myself asking them who they were and what they accomplished before they had died, so it did trouble me slightly that many skulls were broken and faces were no longer intact. Bones and skulls were intricately lain, lining the hallways, beckoning us further. Some bones were warped or misshapen to begin with and perhaps because of these inconsistencies were incapable of being artfully arranged landing in piles. As my first ever viewing of skeletal human remains this experience in isolation would have been life altering. It was humbling and a reminder that despite all the hierarchies and plain old human bullshit, once we’re dead we are all just a pile of bones. The bodies we pride ourselves on or idolize in others break down and essentially go to the same place. These people had no say in what happened to their bodies post mortem but I am truly grateful that they were on display giving us pause and a raison d’étre for the next month or so.