Saturday, January 19, 2013

Tales from the Crypt: Empire of Death

Adding to my list of things in Paris I did not do/see (eat a crepe, see the Liberty Leading the People painting) I also would like to add the catacombs of Paris. No one wanted to see them with me. I had to pull a classmate's teeth to come with me to the Père Lachaise Cemetery just to see Jim Morrison's grave.  But I equate going to the catacombs alone like going to a haunted house alone. No thank you. Who can I hug if it gets scary?

The Catacombs of Paris lie under the streets of downtown. They hold the remains of approximately 6 million people whose bones are all rearranged in rows, designs and shapes. All stacked up nice and neat for your viewing pleasure.

Due to a rise in Christianity in Paris in the 10th century, bodies were buried under and around churches and there were many churches within Paris' city limits. Well, people didn't stop dying and the land around the churches was eventually unable to expand any further. A central mass burial ground was created in the 12th century as a way to remedy the overflow. Many churches began to follow suit and when one section of a cemetery was full, another opened.  

The increase of decaying bodies entering the earth was a little bit of a health concern, especially to a city whose principal source of water was from underground wells. Those wells were located right next to your beloved Uncle Pierre, may he rest in peace. But I don't want him in my drinking water.

A system began to develop for these burial grounds. The bones of bodies that had lain long enough to decompose were put aside to make room for new ones. It wasn't until the 18th century that large-scale suburban burial grounds were created outside of the city. The old cemeteries were condemned and plans were underway to figure out what to do with the existing human remains.  

Paris had a slew of abandoned stone quarries and the government was intent on using them effectively for the storage of the bones. In 1786, the exhumation and transfer of all Paris' dead to the quarries began. The bones were transported over the course of a few years, in horse-drawn wagons behind a procession of chanting priests. The overseer of this process wanted the arrangement of the bones to be visitable like any mausoleum. Tombstones and cemetery decorations were used to complement the walls of the bones. 

To enter these catacombs I would associate with entering hell. You must descend underground 60 feet, then pass through a long and twisted hallway of stone to get to the entrance. And once you get there you have a comforting sign that greets you, "Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort," or "Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death."

These underground tunnels were also useful during World War II, when Parisian members of the French Resistance used it to their advantage to maneuver around the city, as the Germans were unaware of all the passages.