Paris Catacombs // Denfert-Rochereau // 13 jan, 2002
today i decided to go fix my head. nothing is better at fixing my head than a nice healthy shot o Grim Reaper.

so i pulled on my boots, hopped on the metro and shimmied down to the south slab of town. the entrance to the catacombs isnt exactly marked. its a small greenish door that's next to another rather innocuous building. but it was public, so it wasnt as hard to find as the catacombs in bainlieu. anyway, that's another story. i paid a couple bucks and down i went, some 20 meters. it was cool. it was damp. the air was oddly fresh. it smelled like loam and water. the ceiling dripped. it had a plaque that would have made Dante proud:

naturally, i stopped. the real empire of death is up on the surface, where everything that's under the sun is getting ready to die, but i liked the thought. less should have a concert down here. that got me walking.

so, camera in hand, i spent the next three hours with the bones of some 6000 dead people. the stacks of femurs that decorated the walls were the exterior edges of thousands of cubic meters of piled bones. it reminded me of stacks of firewood, or brick walls.

the history deserves to be recounted:

in 1780 several people were mysteriously asphyxiated in the basements, or shared catacombs, of their homes over near the center of town. this was at Rue Lingerie, next to what is currently "Les Halles," one of the largest shopping centers in paris. these people died while in their basements that were linked to a series of shared tombs that supposedly held about 2000 bodies. this was brought to the attentioin of the "keeper" of these common graves, françois pontrain, who admitted to having stuffed more than 90,000 corpses in this pit in less than 35 years. that means that he was carting roughly 8 bodies a day down there, if he took sundays off (as all parisians still do). that's a lot of carcass.

anyway, as voltaire unimaginitively put it, "the Innocents Mass Grave Site is an example of the kind of barbary that we produce underneath our hottentots."

a petition was brought to the police lieutenant. the residents demanded that something be done "against this place of infestation where such an incalculable number of corpses are being stored that the ground underneath the streets themselves has been raised 8 feet."

they had to wait until the 9th of november, 5 years later, until anything was done about it. the government passed a decree that "the Innocents Mass Grave Site will be converted to a proper public place and a market will be established, in all its proper cannonical forms, in all cases required, ..."etc etc. [c.f. Paris Souterrain, Paris, 1953].

Paris' Quarry General, Guillamot, was charged with finding a suitable storage place for the corpses. He decided that "Montsoris Plain" would be renamed to "The Issoire Tombs." they gave the future ossary the name "Catacombs" as an allusion to the volcano Pouzzolane, which hid the bodies of the first christians.

finally, the vicar general of paris consecrated the place and, for the next 12 months, night after night (no one really wanted to watch) the skeletons were carried by some extra priests. these "surplus priests" carried the skeletons from Les Halles to the catacombs at denfert-rochereau. the bones were carted down a small spiralling staircase, some 90 stone stairs down and arranged in this subterrainian citadel, with gentle, loving care (note the form of a heart, below) by the workers that stacked the bones.

here's their handiwork;

naturally, i had to find my own little secrets down there. i found some beautiful hallways off the beaten path that, finally, were the same thing that was publicly lit up, only, well, without the lights. my years of practice in dungeons and dragons did me some good, i'm pleased to announce. not having a compass, after an hour or so of wandering around in the dark i just went back to the main road. it was strange and silent. there wasnt anyone around to hear if i hollered, and, after all that wandering around i decided that people dont look too different without their faces. it would be easy to get lost in there, off of the beaten path, and chances are also good that another skeleton wouldnt make too much difference to any of the locals. mine would have clothes and a wallet, sure, but otherwise, who'd care?

finally, the place was heavy. my stomach felt heavy. the dripping water made it smell good and the loving care that was put into sealing the walls up gave it a peaceful, gentle feel. it was silent. there was no noise, save my footsteps. no echos, no wind, no street, no buildings, no cars, no metro, no sky, no sun, no nothing. just peace. and quiet. and the smell of wet rock.

the exit to the place is practically an embarrassement. 200 years, 6,000 bodies, 11000 square meters, and almost 6 kilometers of tunnels, and all the exit gets is a shitty little door in an alley.

it was 3 in the afternoon so i took the metro and found rewarding grafiti and a pigeon in a nearby station.

by the time i got to lunch (i had to eat and wash the mud off my boots) i was joined by a (living) surfer girl that reminded me that life in paris, while lacking waves and an ocean, aint all that bad. we talked for a few hours, which was especially fun after having spent the previous four staring at corpses.

talking to someone with a body, a nice, young, soft, sexy, healthy female body, was a breath of fresh air and a damn nice change from a buncha yellow bones. i dont think she believed me when i told her where i'd spent the morning.

the evening was spent walking around with my camera, staring at other bones.

paris is full of bones. its a bony city.