You buy a ticket and descend down a dark staircase into a subterranean pool of dust and death. While what you’re experiencing is, technically, a tourist destination, you’re a long way from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Your guide shines a flashlight across a seemingly endless hallway of grinning skulls and grey femurs as your mind conjures up memories of the catacomb scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. “Oh, God,” you think. “There’s probably rats down here. Lots and lots of them. Maybe a knight from the first crusade and a few members of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword too. And here I am without a fedora, let alone a whip.”
This is the introduction I would have written for a post about my journey into the catacombs of Paris but they were closed when my lady friend and I tried to take the tour a few weeks ago. Something about “toxic sewer fumes that would kill anyone who breathes them” and “you don’t want to become a permanent resident of l’Ossuaire Municipal, do you, monsieur? ”
The catacombs and tunnels beneath Paris are fascinating and I hope to get down there someday (I lifted the photo above from CNN’s website). Located inside a series of old mine shafts, it’s currently the home of six million former Parisians, many of them victims of the Black Death, leprosy and other scourges of former ages.
For centuries, city officials struggled to find a reasonable solution to Paris’ ever-growing population of corpses. More often than not, when a cemetery was full, it was covered over and a new one would open in its place (er, literally on top of it). Unfortunately, this absolutely terrible idea caused human remains to seep into Paris’ water supply. Yucko!
In the late 18th century, a series of civic decrees finally solved the problem, more or less. The city constructed three new large-scale cemeteries and condemned all the preexisting parish ones. In 1786, millions of corpses were exhumed from Paris’ overflowing graveyards before being relocated to the catacombs, an ordeal that took two full years to complete.
In the years that followed, the catacombs inspired a goodly chunk of Victor Huge’s Les Miserables. They also served as a hideout for members of the French resistance during World War 2 (and, oddly enough, the Germans also built a bunker down there during the occupation). In the ’70s and ’80s, “cataphiles” relished the creative freedom and anarchic possibilities the tunnels offered. They continue to host events, and even construct full-scale cinemas, down there. The catacombs are also the primary reason why tall buildings can’t be built in central Paris (they’d inevitably collapse). All told, the city’s underground catacombs, tunnels and quarries comprise a 321 kilometer network.
Above ground and a few miles removed from the catacombs, there’s the Père Lachaise Cemetery, one of the three big ones constructed at the turn of the 19th century. It’s supposedly the most visited cemetery in the world, primarily due to its Gothic beauty and infamous residents like Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde.
It’s also a great place to kill a few hours on a gloomy October morning when the catacombs are filled with death gas.
During our visit, the constant threat of a thunderstorm along with the occasional cackling raven and gravemaker cast an appropriately malevolent mood. We made our way through rows of crumbling tombs with rusted doors, expecting Louis de Pointe du Lac to pop out of one at any second to tell us to keep it down before launching into a bitter diatribe about Tom Cruise. All the stereotypical mental images that spring to mind when someone thinks of the word “graveyard,” more or less, originated here.
Along with the tombs, there’s plenty of statues of angels, weeping widows, long dead generals, Jesus, etc. Many are equal parts creepy and peculiar. We came across one of a man with a large mustache and a puppet standing in an outstretched palm. Another family plot featured a life-sized recreation of “The Thinker.” I half expected him to come to life in order to bum a Rolo but no dice.
We visited Morrison’s rather unremarkable grave before heading off in search of Piaf. The graffiti and notes scattered around the Lizard King’s remains are much more interesting than his humble tombstone. At one point, the site featured a bust of the long gone rock god but it was defaced over the years before finally being carted off by vandals in 1988.
By the time we found Piaf’s grave, the sun was cutting through the sinister clouds hanging over our heads, turning Lachaise’s trees into lines of golden foliage. Then, off in the distance, came the wafting laughter of children at recess from a nearby school. A bittersweet admonition of impending mortality or a ghoulish reminder of that super eerie children’s choir from Poltergeist, uh, well, take your pick.
We eventually found our way to Oscar Wilde’s grave, which has received so many rambunctious visitors over the years that it was recently restored by the Irish government. There’s now a tall, glass barrier surrounding his angelic tomb but even that hasn’t deterred people from climbing over it to leave behind lipstick mementos. The glass itself is also covered in kisses and other tributes.
Given all the foot traffic and international renown, Lechaise has a waiting list and current residents with lethargic or stingy heirs have been known to be evicted if their leases aren’t renewed or if their graves become too untidy. Their remains are hauled off to a nearby ossuary. All together, somewhere between two and three million people are interred at the cemetery.
As we headed back down towards the main entrance, we caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower peeking out over a vista of autumnal foliage. It was rad.