Paris is the city of romance, the City of Light, of the Can-Can and absinthe and art, of sky-high heels and croissants and coffee. But for the unashamedly ghoulish or even just the mildly melancholy, it is not hard to look beneath all that glamour and find a city of darkness. Welcome to dead Paris.
I am alone, underground, surrounded by millions upon millions of human bones, aged to the colour of tea. Skulls stare with empty eye sockets. Leg and arm bones are stacked together, their nubby joints interlocking like drywall.
Lights are few and, in the dimness, my shadow seems to bolt ahead of me in terror. The walls and the ceiling weep. Water seeps through the rock and forms muddy puddles on the floor, drips down my face and runs through my hair.
These are the Catacombs, the final home of about six million Parisians. The young, the old, the sick, the drowned, the murdered, the lost, the poor and the mad; workers, soldiers, mothers, fathers, children: they all lie here, together in the damp darkness, the arm bones connected to the leg bones. The only thing they have in common is that they’re dead.
Seeing so many skulls in one place makes it hard to remember that each one has its history. They become almost like macabre bricks. From time to time, one looms out of the darkness with a bullet hole piercing its forehead. Soldier? Murder victim? Suicide? Spy? All has been lost to the anonymity of time, and the dead aren’t chatty.
The Catacombs of Paris began life as a series of quarries, some dating from as early as the thirteenth century. They snake for miles beneath the City of Light. The section I am in houses an ossuary, or bone store, and is open to the public, but there are many more caverns that are officially off limits. This makes no difference to the ‘cataphiles’ who live to explore these dark caves and for whom the €55 fine is no deterrent. Paris has no shortage of people who love the dark.
The Catacombs were born from necessity, as a place to store bones. Shortly before the French Revolution, the city’s graveyards were quite literally overflowing. The dead were tipped into communal graves holding up to 2000 bodies where they were covered in quicklime to speed decomposition. But there is only so much lime can do. Rotting corpses crawling with overfed rats were visible in the open pits and the smell around the cemeteries was nightmarish.
When the wall of a cellar next to the Saints-Innocents Cemetery in the Marais district collapsed, filling with rotting bodies and reportedly crushing a child, Paris could no longer ignore the problem. The graveyards were to be emptied and closed; new, sanitary ones would be opened on the outskirts of the city. Bones were already being stacked in ossuaries as soon as they were free of flesh, so it was decided to consecrate the disused quarries.
The bones were transported at night. Initially, they were simply dropped in through shafts from the surface to lie together in a jumble, but then Héricart de Thury took over as Chief Quarry Inspector. With a keen sense of drama, de Thury had the bones arranged into walls and decorative structures, and included engraved lines of poetry and scripture relating to life and death on stones throughout the ossuary. He was also the man who opened the area to the public, causing quite the sensation in the early 1800s.
I have always wanted to see the Catacombs, so I join the queue near the Tollgate of Hell, pay my money and take my chance. A sign near the ticket booth reads, ‘Warning. The ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children or people with a nervous disposition.’ I remember a friend’s story about a paste-white woman running the entire length of the corridor towards the exit after she saw the first bones. I presume this means that tender souls and claustrophobes need not apply. Surely I am built of sterner stuff than this.
It turns out that the path to hell is paved with stone and cement, with nary a good intention in sight. A dank spiral staircase leads down to a sloping stone corridor, neatly arched in places and rough-ceilinged in others, low enough to make a tall man crouch. The work of the original quarrymen is visible here: the dry walling, the support pillars that guard against collapse, the rubble from their daily cutting and hewing. In one open space, a long-dead quarryman has carved a fort in miniature and an exquisite streetscape. Most of Paris is built from stone taken from quarries like this and the Catacombs are as much a monument to the men who cut them as they are to the city’s dead.
Finally, the famous sign: ‘Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.’
Halt. This is the empire of death.
In death’s dim acre, visitors walk through gallery after gallery of bones, each one with its marker to show its cemetery of origin. When I first enter I am surrounded by people, but they are loud and distracting so I hang back to let them pass. When they have tramped on, I am left alone and all is quiet.
Looking up, I see there are black arrows tarred on the ceiling from the days when there were no electric lights. I can’t help but think of Injun Joe, lost in the cave and eating rats and candles. I pass skulls arranged in the outline of a heart, a neat construction of arms and legs forming a barrel shape in the centre of a gallery, a stone altar that was used to celebrate mass every year after Halloween, monuments to the dead of the Revolution and pirate-style skulls and crossed bones set in walls of hundreds and thousands of other bones. Bones, bones everywhere. Millions upon millions of them.
I suppose this could be enough to push one of the timid types mentioned in the entrance disclaimer over the edge, but I don’t find the Catacombs a scary place. While they’re a sad reminder of mortality and loss, they are not fear-inducing.
Eventually I climb back up to the light, leaving the empire of the dead behind. Near the street exit, a table stands by the door with two skulls half-shrouded under a crumpled cloth. This is where staff collect the bones that visitors have tried to souvenir. The number will grow throughout the day and later they will go back down into the darkness to rejoin their fellows.
Near the Catacombs is one of Paris’s nineteenth-century cemeteries, Montparnasse. There is another in Montmartre and the third (and most famous) is Père Lachaise. I know graveyards give some people the shivers, but I’ve always thought of them as peaceful spots, full of history. Old trees cast dappled shadows, and their lawns and flowers are more attractive and better tended than the average park. There are fewer screaming children and a lot more statues.
Parisian cemeteries feel more like open-air sculpture parks, even if the subjects tend to be a little on the gloomy side, but that makes no difference for those of us with a melancholy turn of mind. Silent angels fold their wings, weeping women scatter rose petals or cover their faces in anguish, owls perch, skulls leer, military busts stare self-importantly into the distance. Mosaics, stained glass and wrought iron abound. There is a small forest of crucifixes and a legion of Madonnas cradling Holy Infants.
The three cemeteries are true necropolises, set out like miniature towns with cobbled streets and pathways, their mausoleums tiny versions of the houses their owners once inhabited. They are roofed with shingles and tiles that have been softened by the years, and layers of moss and lichen. Every type of tomb is here, from the humble to the grand, housing the unknown and the famous. Political dissidents are buried next to artists, tycoons across the way from communists. In the street outside the cemetery walls, the homes of the living look down over the houses of the dead.
Père Lachaise has three ‘must-visit’ graves: famous lovers Heloise and Abelard; American singer Jim Morrison; and Oscar Wilde. If Père Lachaise were the Louvre, this trio would be the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory. Most visitors see them, then leave, satisfied.
Separated in life, Heloise and Abelard are reunited in the grave, according to their epitaph. The tomb is mostly hidden behind scaffolding and net, but this is normal. The day before, my tour guide cast a baleful eye at one building suffering the throes of restoration and snorted, ‘It would not be Paris if there was not something under scaffolding!’ The lovers are visible through the framework, the sunlight slanting onto their faces. They lie stiffly side by side, eyes closed and palms pressed together as if they are praying in their sleep. I wish they were holding hands.
Morrison’s is an ordinary square headstone, enclosed by a low wall and surrounded by a second fence that forces visitors to keep their distance. Nevertheless, folded notes and flowers litter the grave, pitched over by determined fans with good aim. A large tree nearby is covered in layers of graffiti, hearts and kisses. The tree is an ill portent of things to come.
At Oscar Wilde’s grave, the monument is a stark modern sculpture: a large, flying male figure carved from granite. Local legend has it that it was once quite well endowed, though someone snapped off the protuberance and carried it away. Apparently it was missing for some time, but has since been recovered and now resides in the cemetery manager’s office for safekeeping. Looking at the state of Wilde’s grave, I decide the manager’s office is probably the safest place for a wandering stone willy. Visitors have covered the statue with graffiti and lipstick kisses as high as they can reach. Someone has even climbed up to paint a slick of red on the statue’s lips. It is garish and shocking and I can’t decide whether Wilde would be smug at so much adoration or put out that he couldn’t just be left in peace. I am scandalised, not only at the fact that so many people would consider it acceptable to scrawl graffiti on a grave, but by the banality of the messages and the fact that so many are misspelled. Most of the jumble is simply names and dates, which is no more than a dog raising its leg against a tree before snuffling on down the road. Look, I was here. Look. Look at me.
Out on the streets of Paris, in the city of the living, dogs are in a class of their own. They travel on the Metro, paws gamely spread against sudden jolts. They visit cafes and restaurants and go shopping with their owners. They are groomed and cosseted and cooed over.
But here in the cities of the dead, cats reign supreme. In Montmartre Cemetery, stern signs warn against feeding the resident moggies. If I had a sardine in my pocket, I know what I would do with it, though. Battle-scarred tabbies prowl among the mausoleums, napping on the tombs and nibbling the unkempt grass growing from urns. They take no notice of the other cemetery inhabitants, the ravens, all inky feathers and hoarse bad temper. One perches obligingly on a stone cross, cawing and ruffling its neck feathers for the camera, as though it feels the pressure of Poe’s expectations.
Paris is an easy city to love. In the late afternoon, the sun turns the graceful old buildings along the Seine to gold. As twilight creeps in, the sky’s blue melts to rose and the lights come up, shining the buildings and bridges to diamonds. A little ceramic jug of house wine, a bowl of mussels and some crusty bread becomes the perfect meal. Even for a scratchy old atheist, the churches are wonders of art and architecture. The Eiffel Tower looms at unexpected moments and every view is worthy of a postcard.
But there is beauty in darkness as well as in light. Burnished bones, blanketing moss, heartbroken sylphs and autumn leaves collecting in grave corners all have their own charms.
Even down among the dead men, this city is a wonder.