Our last visit to Paris, we spent 98% of our time in the The Lourve. This time, I drag my artist companion from his museums to the catacombes de Paris to spend some quality time with France’s deceased.
It’s only 10am and the queue is already wrapped around the park! I can’t believe how many others want to spend a beautiful summer day gawking at mounds of skulls in Paris’ underbelly. TWO AND HALF HOURS LATER, we descend into the moist earth, winding our way down, down, down…
Ahead of us is a tunnel glowing with amber light. I place a palm against the stone – it’s soft, cool, and moist. The catacombs were first mines, and these stones are the building blocks of Paris. We pass a science-y section describing the prehistoric significance of the stone and blah blah blah. Right, where are the skulls?
To enter the crypt area, you pass through an appropriately somber stone doorway. On entering your voice, footsteps, and thoughts fall to a hush.
Skulls, knucklebones, joints, limbs – human remains are the mortar, death is the architecture of this tiny underworld. Skulls glimmer in the low lighting, are piled in mounds, arranged to form crosses, rings, borders.
There are quotes carved into the walls, from poets, philosophers, and the Bible. They’re in French, of course, so I can’t understand them, but I am sure they are somber, appropriate words.
You can’t look for too long, as there are many death tourists with clicking cameras waiting for their turn. A sign asks us not to touch the skulls. Who needs to be TOLD these things? I pass a skull with graffiti on it – someone wrote their initials on the shiny forehead with permanent marker. Everything in me shudders to see this.
I don’t know what to think of the catacombs. I don’t know how to feel as I walk past these thousands of people, jumbled all together.
I turn a corner into a tourist-free tunnel. I call out for Sal, but my voice is muted by the stone walls. I stand for a minute, waiting.
It’s just me and the skulls.
Nothing creepy happens. I feel a settled sort of peace, which surprises me.
Later, when I lie in bed, I think about what it would be like to be trapped down there for a night.
I don’t fall asleep for a while.