Imagine entering a ground-level doorway and then cautiously descending down a tiny, uneven stone staircase for over 65 feet. After more than 130 stairs, far down below the subway system and even the sewers, you come to a claustrophobic dirt-floor hallway. The air is strangely cool (a consistent 39 degrees); much colder than it was above ground, where the sun was shining.
You follow the hall’s maze-like 90-degree turns for a full 10 minutes, hearing only the sound of your own feet on the dirt below. All other noises are dampened, muffled by the utter stillness of the air.
Then you come upon a gaping entrance, above which these words are etched in stone:
English translation: “HALT! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH.”
You are about to enter the huge underground ossuary called Les Catacombes de Paris (the Paris Catacombs).
Millions of skeletal remains have been stored in the Catacombs since the late 1700s. Perhaps the strangest thing about this site is that the bones are not in coffins; rather, they’re all mixed together and arranged in decorative displays.
I went there last January, and these are the pictures I took. [Warning to sensitive readers: these are photos of real human remains, which might be difficult for some people to view.]
The bones — around 30 cemeteries’ worth — were transferred here when the city’s graveyards started to overflow in the wake of the Plague. There simply wasn’t enough available ground in Paris to accommodate the death toll.
The first thing I noticed in the Catacombs was the black line on the ceiling overhead. This used to be a trail of accumulated soot from hundreds of visitors’ handheld torches. Later, workers painted the line black so that explorers of the ossuary wouldn’t get lost navigating the subterranean tunnels. (Just imagine!)
Wandering around within a large mass tomb was nothing short of surreal. The displays, which use human bones like mosaic tiles, are haunting now, but they were originally intended to be solemn tributes to the lives of the deceased. All of the remains brought into the chamber were consecrated by priests, and throughout the ossuary are dozens of commemorative plaques, including poems such as “Like waves, our days have washed away.”
One unusual spot is the Samaritan Fountain, which still contains a small pool of water. In the late 1850s, a research scientist put goldfish in this well with the intent to study them. His study yielded several strange observations: the fish went blind, they lost the ability to reproduce, and their swim patterns could “predict” the aboveground weather.
It took me several years to work up the courage to visit the Catacombs. I thought that being surrounded by that much death would overwhelm me. But when I finally went, I was surprised at how peaceful it felt down there.
And it was the first location I’ve ever visited that warrants a “don’t touch the skulls” sign.