Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 9: The Empire Of The Dead

"Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." – Steve Jobs

The entrance to the Paris Catacombs is right next to a busy intersection in the heart of the Montparnasse neighborhood. It's nothing, really--a sort of shack next to a small garden. Signs listing the entrance fees (in English as well as French) also warn of the number of steps to be climbed, and that the catacombs are not a place for children or the overly sensitive.

The lines are long, and people are ushered in in groups, with long pauses between. (As a nominal preservation measure, there are strict limits on the number of people allowed inside the catacombs at any one time.) When you finally enter the shack, signs on the wall describe the geology underlying Paris, and show you a diagram of the location of the catacombs relative to various other layers. There is a ticket booth at which to pay the entrance fee and retrieve a pamphlet (in an assortment of languages). Just to the right, so close to the counter it seems ridiculous to have a second employee checking tickets, is a narrow, winding staircase that leads down, down, down into the depths. The noise of the city vanishes almost at once. When you reach the bottom, you are deeper inside the earth than even the Métro.

The first spaces are relatively open and brightly lit, hung with photographs and diagrams and various texts describing the history of the catacombs. They were dug first as quarries, and were the source of the stones used to build some of the most famous buildings in Paris. Later they were hideouts, for outlaws and refugees alike. In the late eighteenth century, a section of them was modified and consecrated and became the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of dead Parisians, some of them already centuries old, who were systematically exhumed from various cemeteries and churchyards over the course of the next hundred years.

You must walk through some distance of empty catacombs before reaching the crypt. They are narrow limestone tunnels, dark and damp. The walls are rough, carved or painted or hung with small plaques here and there, left from the quarry and construction days or commemorating something about them. The floors are uneven, but in places without gravel they are worn smooth. Today the passages are dimly lit with small bulbs every few meters, which provide enough light to see the black stripe painted down the middle of the ceiling, left from the days of candlelit tourism when visitors needed some way to make sure they were on the right path. Nowadays the path is unmistakable--locked iron gates stand in the way of any possible wrong turn. They detract from the feel of the place a bit, but if you're careful and can manage to be alone in a stretch of tunnel for a moment, you can feel the silence and isolation almost as surely as if you really were alone--remarkable when you remember that just meters above your head, cars are whizzing down a street lined with high-rises and crowds of pedestrians.

There are a few interesting sights along the route. The marks of quarrying tools. A deep well, far below the path. Some ornate 3D carvings, reminiscent of sand castles, worked by a prisoner, that seem completely surreal and out of place. But the highlight of the visit is the ossuary. Past the silent human guards and several signs warning visitors to be respectful (this section of the catacombs is not merely a repository; it is hallowed ground), a monumental doorway guards the entrance to the crypt, and its inscription reads: "Stop! It is here the empire of the dead."

Before I go any further, a quick tangent is necessary. I remember writing something while I was in Ireland about how—as ridiculous as it sounded and as pompous and douchebaggy as it made me feel—I feared I might actually be getting bored of castles. Not, of course, that I think anyone could ever actually be bored of castles, because some things never get old (so to speak), just that they didn't seem to have quite as much impact as they did at first. One of the pitfalls of travel is that sometimes, the more impressive things one sees, the more it takes to seem impressive. I have seen a lot of amazing and beautiful things, and I haven't even come close to ceasing to appreciate them, but they don't always strike quite as hard as they used to. The tenth castle, the twentieth medieval church, just can't make a heart race quite as easily as the first unless there's something else that's special about it--a special personal connection, perhaps. It's sad, but it's true. I still love seeing new things, and I still marvel at beauty and history, but I'm a little jaded, all the same.

I told you all of that not to make myself sound like an asshole (although I'm aware that that's a side effect), but in order to tell you this and have it carry the appropriate weight: When I stepped through the doorway into the ossuary, what I saw stopped me in my tracks. I mean actually. There was a pause to allow my eyes to adjust, and as I realized what I was looking at, I changed at once from paused to simply frozen.

Perhaps I should also point out here that I am not squeamish about bones (quite the opposite, in fact), nor are they exotic to me. Not only have I seen plenty of them in exhibit contexts, I've handled them and studied them in excavation and laboratory contexts. In fact, if and when I go back to school for my Master's in archaeology, there is a pretty good chance that I may decide to specialize in the study of human remains. So it wasn't just the presence of the bones, or the fact of being in a burial place, that did it. It was something else.

I think it was the scale. Imagine several million people all in one place. More than in all but the biggest U.S. cities. Now imagine that all you have of them are their bones, stacked neatly along either side of a narrow path in piles taller than a man and several yards deep, stretching farther than the eye can see away into the darkness.

I'd heard the numbers--roughly this many people, in a space covering roughly six or seven city blocks--but I was completely unprepared for the sight of that many bones. It defies imagination, let alone comprehension.

But you do imagine. I did, at least. Every single one of those bones once belonged to a person, to someone who walked and talked and worked and laughed. Someone who, at some point in the past, had a home, and a family. Someone who ate, and cried, and loved and was loved by someone. Now all of them are anonymous, lying in pieces and stacked up with their neighbors like firewood somewhere in the bowels of one of the world's greatest cities.

Most of the bones that are visible are long bones and skulls. Sometimes ribs, here and there. The lack of pelvises puzzled me a bit, but everything else I assume has fallen down among the cracks or is lying in heaps somewhere out of sight behind the walls of arms and legs, if it hasn't already rotted away. Everything is very neat*, but no one is intact. It would be impossible ever to try to match up what pieces go together.

Sometimes they are arranged into shapes. A bulging column is set apart from the stacks lining the walls. The stacks are decorated with a cross made of tibiae here, a heart-shaped ring of skulls there.

And they just go on and on. If the catacombs seemed endless before you reached the ossuary, that's nothing compared to being with the bones. You can only see a short distance at a time, between the dim lights and the twists and turns of the passages, and always the space that you can see is entirely lined with bones, sometimes with more piles of bones stacked up in columns in the middle of wider areas. It's cold and damp and dark, and silent except for the voices and muffled footsteps of fellow tourists, and the water dripping from above. You keep moving forward, and the stacks of bones keep extending out of sight, and you pass a gate and see more bones beyond it, and you round a corner and the stacks of bones continue ahead of you just as they did behind. Ad infinitum. You're surrounded, constantly. Everywhere, there are more skulls staring at you. You have no choice but to look death in the face. You have nowhere to go but past more former people. You have no idea when it's going to end. You don't know how far you've walked. You forget how long you've been walking. Time is irrelevant here.

Some people apparently think it's scary. Adults whisper, and even college-age men speak in hushed tones. Girls of ten or twelve complain loudly and theatrically about being creeped out. Teenagers laugh and joke--disrespect, or just discomfort?

Those of us walking alone snap pictures, many more pictures than people traveling in groups, even though groups are more likely to have a flashlight or two to aid the process. Partly it's the same morbid curiosity that drew us there in the first place, but also, even the underworld is smaller through a camera lens.

And it is the underworld literally as well as figuratively--above, the City of Light bustles with life, and in the catacombs, the people who were once that life themselves languish in the dark and the stillness.

Counterpoint. Yin and yang. The circle of life.

An article about the catacombs by Ted Gup that appeared in Smithsonian magazine years ago (I believe it was sometime in the late '90s, I found it when sorting through stacks of old magazines before my parents moved last summer) ends with this paragraph: "There is a strange irony about the catacombs. The stones that were removed from the early quarries went to make the great buildings of Paris—the Louvre and Notre Dame... But those who built and created the majesty of modern Paris—generations of architects, laborers, shopkeepers, soldiers and peasants—were destined to lose their individual identities, reduced to a kind of human landfill. They would occupy the same dark cavities from which the stones of Paris had been removed. They and the stones had traded places... The city of Paris, City of Light, city of gourmands and lovers, of Notre Dame and the Louvre—this is their legacy and the grand monument that is their due."

I didn't think it was scary. Eerie, perhaps. Intense. Powerful. But not frightening.

I did find it profoundly sad--and also weirdly inspirational. Someday, sooner or later, we will all be no more than they, and we may be just as anonymous, just as forgotten. Who was it who called death the great equalizer? It's true. Not just because we all come to the same thing, but because it becomes very clear in a place like Paris's catacombs that we are all just parts of the same whole. There is no one thing that everyone in the catacombs has in common except for where they ended up--and the fact that they no longer have any other identity. But together, they become the past, the fabric of a city. They are us, or we are them, or it doesn't matter, in the end, who any of us is. It matters what we do, all of us together, to lead to the next phase of history, and the next. It matters what we contribute to what will be left behind when everyone living now is nameless and faceless.

There is no greater motivator than mortality.

And mortality is inescapable in the catacombs. If the bones themselves are not reminder enough, or if you possess either the ability to block them out or the inability to think of them as people, there are also written reminders. Before each new section of stacked remains is a sign bearing the name of their original burial place and the date that they were moved to the catacombs. Also, scattered throughout the ossuary are dozens and dozens of signs bearing quotes. There are too many to read them all, and some are in shadow anyway, unreadable without a flashlight or candle. Most are about death, some about life. Some are in French, some in Latin, some are religious and some secular, and they draw on everything from Bible passages to lines from Homer and Virgil to Enlightenment philosophers. They are perhaps a strange tribute given that the population of the catacombs was probably largely illiterate in life, but they certainly set the mood for today's visitors.

"God is not the author of death."
"Believe that each day is for you the last."
"Come people of the world, come into these silent abodes and your soul so calm with be struck by the voice that rises from their interior. It is here that the greatest of masters, the Tomb, has his school of truth."
"Happy is he who has always before his eyes the hour of his death, and who readies himself all his days to die."
"Fool that you are, why do you promise to live a long time, you who cannot count on a single day."

[Forgive my terrible translations.]

When you finally emerge, back up another long, winding set of stairs, daylight feels strange and you feel out of place on the street among the living. The careless bustle of the city just doesn't look the same as it did before. Maybe it won't. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

* In the parts that tourists see. In some of the off-limits parts of the catacombs, there really are just heaps of bones lying willy-nilly.

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