Everyday is Halloween at Les Catacombes de Paris. But, it’s not about dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing outlandish make-up. It’s about visiting a subterranean ossuary that radiates miles in all directions beyond the 14th Arrondissement of Paris.
Taking 130 steps into the bowels of time…
…and following a long and winding stoney path…
…through weeping ceilings heavy with humidity,
and sobering humility,
one reaches an imposing gateway, warning: STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH!
Beyond the entrance exists a daunting surreality that 6 million human remains reside here, integrated into the walls of 8000 year-old limestone tunnels once quarried to build Paris into one of Europe’s brightest beacons–bringing an eerie normalization to the horror and beauty of this place, for the skulls and bones are often arranged in an unnatural state of decoration.
With Parisian cemeteries overflowing their boundaries, Louis XV and Louis XVI crusaded for a ban on future burials within city limits when the insufferable stench of rotting corpses began overwhelming the community. But the Church pushed back, citing that the dominion of God’s holy spirits should never be disturbed.
However, in 1780, a rush of Spring rain caused a wall to collapse between a house cellar and the Holy Innocents Cemetery, causing the unsanitary contents of its burial pit to flood the house.
Thereafter, all Parisian cemeteries were exhumed,
and the bones were transferred into the catacombs–
a practice that continued until 1859.
Yet, it’s the skullpture, first imagined by Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries during 1810 that resonates most among the catacomb’s 300,000 visitors each year.
Although there is a bone to pick: roving security discourages tourists from touching sacred ruins or leaving graffiti behind,
while a final bag check at the conclusion of the one-hour tour prevents tourists from poaching remnants.
But if souvenirs are a must (and who doesn’t enjoy a small memento of their visit), the gift shop at the museum exit does a brisk business–
bringing renewed life to the term “head shop”.