The Catacombs of Paris

Whenever the catacombs have come up in conversations or stories, I’ve always wondered where they came from. It’s a little odd to have miles of underground networks tunnels full of bones underneath a bustling city. Today I learned where they came from.

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So what exactly are the Paris catacombs? Simply put, the catacombs are a mine (or a limestone quarry, to be precise.) The beautiful limestone structures of Paris—structures like Notre Dame Cathedral and the retention walls along the Seine River—were built using stone from limestone quarries, including the quarries that would become the catacombs. Many of the tunnels were illegal, and thus remained uncharted beneath the city.

The city grew up around the quarries, and they were mostly forgotten until a series of cave-ins caused King Louis XVI (the sixteenth, for those of you who don’t speak Roman math) to order an official commission to investigate the mines and the cave-ins. The king’s engineers added support columns to prevent future collapses and carved their initials and the year into the stone.

When the wall of a city cemetery was knocked over from the weight of the mass grave piled behind and against it, people became desperate to do something about the problem of Paris’ overpopulated graveyards.

And so, Alexandre Lenoir, the clever Police Lieutenant-General at the time decided to bury two problems with one shovel. He endorsed the idea of turning the catacombs into an ossuary.

 ossuary — (n.) a place or receptacle for the bones of the dead.

Almost immediately, the bones were transported and placed into the empty tunnels, and people stopped worrying about graveyards overflowing their bounds. Whole cemeteries were emptied and stacked in the catacombs.

Later, scientists and archaeologists identified and organized the bones, and the catacombs were opened to the public for tours. So no, the bones didn’t actually start out in nice rows of neatly stacked femurs and skulls, but they sure look cool now.

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

John 12:24

Throughout the catacombs, there are large stones inscribed with Bible verses, poetry, and quotes. Since I don’t speak Latin or French, I had to look up their meaning later. They ranged from sarcastic to philosophic and from hopeful to condemning. I was a little grateful that I didn’t have their words cluttering my thoughts as I walked through.

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I wasn’t thinking about death as I went through the catacombs. I was mostly focused on to slipping on the uneven clay and gravel floor and not hitting my head on the drippy ceiling. The bones, arranged in clever patterns, made the place feel more like an art exhibit rather than a burial site.

Thus all that passes on the earth,

Spirit, Beauty, Charms, Talent,

is but an ephemeral flower

overthrown with the wind.

—-Alphonse de Lamartine

My favorite quote went like this:

“Where is Death? Always ahead or behind—just when she appears she is already vanished.”

It reminded my of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is narrated by Death. Courtney has been reading The Book Thief in French (in fact, she finished today), and one of the most interesting aspects of the French translation is that the word for death is feminine. That means that any time Zusak refers to Death in the story, feminine pronouns (she, her) are used, just like in the poem above.

While we know from interviews with Zusak and context clues in the story that Death is masculine, Courtney has enjoyed picturing Death as a mother or aunt figure watching out for young Liesel Meminger. It is admittedly a little weird to have a guy paying such attention to a young girl, even if he is a personified abstraction.

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My take away from the catacombs was not one of somber life-and-death thoughts, but rather an awe at the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. I was impressed at the people who dug the mine tunnels (especially the secret, illegal ones. How do you keep that quiet?) I was impressed with the buildings people made, and the care they took to provide a safe resting place for the remains of hundreds of unknown others. I was impressed with the variety and power of the inscriptions. It was just cool.

So, if you asked me whether visiting the catacombs was a grave experience, I’d answer, “No. . . It was to die for.”

—M.M.

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