Into the Grave
Innocuous travel advice led me there. My friend had already recommended a dozen museums and monuments to see while in Paris—this was just another item to add to the itinerary. I had no idea that it would lead me into a place where the darkness moved on its own and the walls whispered behind my back.
My visit started the same way that most vacation activities do: with a long line, a mingling of chatter and cigarette smoke in the air, and nearby shops that hawked gaudy souvenirs. Here, however, the cards and magnets boasted skulls and skeletons rather than the Paris skyline. The guarded entrance—a somber black shack on the edge of a park—bore no advertisement for the macabre attraction, just a plain placard.
l’Ossuaire Municipal—The Catacombs of Paris.
All of Paris stood on hollow ground, the skeleton of a network of once prosperous mines. In the miles of caverns resided the bones of the Parisian dead that were relocated from overflowing city cemeteries during the eighteenth century. With the remains of over six million people, the catacombs formed the largest human grave in the world.
I had no companions on this excursion, so was hastily tacked onto a rowdy group of teenage girls as I entered. They nudged each other as we went through the door, giggles and gossip filling the darkness of the stairwell. Their festive mood didn’t survive the spiral staircase. The deceased insisted on silence. With each step into the damp corpse of the Paris mines, the hush of the labyrinth wrapped us tighter in its embrace.
Though the ossuary was massive, only a corner was set aside for public display. To get there required a fifteen-minute walk along a winding stone path. Lighting was scarce in the tunnels, with only the sporadic bulb to chase away the shadows that grew like cobwebs along the stone. My steps slowed, feet lingering as if the dark sucked at them like mud, and I found myself outpaced by my incidental companions. With no sound but a drip which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, my heartbeat pounded in my ears, almost deafening in this neighborhood of the dead. The darkness here had weight, pressing in on me on all sides. I trailed my hand along the damp stone edge—needing the solid reassurance that I had not walked out of the catacombs and into perdition by mistake—until the soft glimmer of light reappeared around another winding corner.
I followed the dark corridors, each one ending in another. At places, where a side tunnel had once veered from the main path, a wall of hasty brick now stood. I paused, drawn by curiosity to the metal bars that looked into the corridor beyond. Staring into the darkness that could have been inches or miles deep, I felt a call from the inky blackness beyond the barrier. Just a step inside, it said. Just a peek.
Tourist gossip cautioned visitors not to follow any ghosts off the path. That advice carried more warning than the joking tone implied. After all, in June of 2017, a set of teenagers became lost in the catacombs for three days before search dogs found them scared, starved, and shivering. The catacombs called to many. That call could be deadly.
My own trance was broken by a startled shriek and a fit of giggles from the girls in front of me. Their lighthearted mood jarred my mind from the clutch of the caverns. With a shake of my head, I turned from the barrier and followed their voices down the path. We were there.
An inscription carved in stone guarded the entrance of the ossuary: “Arrete, c’est ici l’empire de la mort“—”Halt, this is the realm of death”. My feet hesitated, an elemental wariness warning me back, but a stronger force lured me forward. I entered.
Flood lamps lit the most famous parts of the ossuary, trapping them in a burning spotlight for tourist pictures. The visitors congregated there like cavemen around a fire, trembling at the unknown outside the protection of the light.
Skulls and femurs were stacked in artful walls as if they had not once held upright the stately human form. All dignity in death was stripped to create decorations. The last remnants of millions laid here jumbled far away from their original forms, as if all human parts were interchangeable. Would the souls of the residents here have agreed if they’d know they would spend eternal death as a subject of grim amusement? I found that idea unlikely. Death lurked in darkness, but not the caged, domesticated death of the attraction. This was something wilder which might have caught me in its claws if I turned from it.
I wandered farther from the flash of cameras—in the stone walkways, the voices seemed to fade faster than they ought to have—until I was once again alone with the ghosts of centuries past. Here the designs were less ordered, as if the artists had begun in earnest concentration and finished in a frantic rush. Bones had crumbled and the walls they formed had collapsed on themselves, a mockery of this deathless monument of dead.
I had come so far, but, like a schoolkid in the neighborhood haunted house, I needed a token, some primitive proof of courage. With my back to the wall, I wrestled with the shadows to ensure my camera clearly captured both my face and the construction of bones behind me. Even in the dry air of the enclosed caverns, a cool breeze ran its finger through my hair and I shivered as the camera clicked. Snapshot obtained, I uttered a reverent thank you, then raced to the staircase that led back to the blaring life of Paris. Only after, tucked in the safety of a café, did I inspect the picture and notice the grin of the skull that peered over my shoulder with empty eyes.