Sheets of rain came pouring down the morning we stood in a queue to enter the network of tunnels, better known as the Catacombs, deep beneath the enchanted city of Paris. Down there, the enchantment wears off a smidge. There has to be balance after all, or you would be in danger of becoming inured to the beauty of that old city. The queue for the Catacombs was long and our patience short, e’en though we were armed with a sturdy umbrella from the boutique hotel we had just shifted into, from The Grand Hotel.
I have always been curious about them, ossuaries. There are 40 such houses of bones scattered around the world, in England, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Siberia, the Czech Republic…yet I had not been to a single one.
Before you exclaim, ‘oh how macabre’, there is nothing macabre about death. It is a natural counterpart of life, after all. When the cemeteries started to get overcrowded, it was inevitable that ossuaries cropped up as a response to the need of the times — they were chambers dedicated to the preservation of the skeletal remains of the departed.
Paris sits above quarries of limestone and gypsum. In Lutetia, that is old Paris, the Romans used the stones to build their bathhouses and arenas. The Parisians carried on with quarrying underground, and naturally, the outcome is a honeycomb of tunnels in the bowels of the city. They are said to extend for 200 miles, most of them uncharted, but the adventurous few known as cataphiles, make regular inroads into the tunnels through hidden entrances, ventilation shafts and manholes. There are underground cinema theatres, murals and setups for raves. The gendarmerie stumbled upon a cinema and restaurant of sorts somewhere beneath the 16th arrondissement a few years ago. They also found a note that instructed them to not try and find these cataphiles.
I am not a cataphile, but I do profess to have a fascination for the underground. There was that subterranean wine cellar in Southbank where I once sat with my cousin drinking wine to beat the heat outside. Its dimly lit chambers a salve to the senses on that bright and hot summer’s day in London. The underground salt cellars in Krakow were a revelation. The allure of the underground lies in the sense of mystery it evokes, perhaps in the suggestion of more; a strange intoxication that stems from the possibility of disregarding rules, because to begin with, strictly there are no rules down there. Also, for the most part, you leave the world well above you.
Back at the public entrance to the Catacombs’ in the 14th arrondissement, a grizzled, grumpy man, seemingly overcome with ennui, checked our tickets and let us in. Then five stories of winding staircase, a dizzying exercise if you did not stop because there were people at your heels, and voila, you were in the Catacombs.
“Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” (Halt, this is the empire of death), read the words at the top of the entrance before you found yourself walking through long galleries, eye goggling at the sight of skulls, tibias and femurs stacked together, and rather neatly, from ceiling to floor. Some arranged in heart-shaped patterns. Those were old, old bones. Some dating back to thousands of years. You would hardly know which bone belonged to whom. There in death’s chambers, we were witness to a strange equality. Aristocrats and beggars lay stacked together. Many famous figures from the French Revolution too, when bodies were buried directly in the Catacombs.
True, it was the history of a city preserved in tangible terms, in a dimly-lit and quiet affair, but after walking through the remains of some 6 million dead in those tunnels, it was refreshing to come back above to the land of the living, to appreciate the flow of life around us.
Oh but there is such poetry in simply living!