A SUBTERRANEAN STASH OF SKELETAL REMAINS
Deep under the streets of Paris there is a macabre collection...a cavernous, cadaverous cache on an overwhelming scale. This is one place where you truly can walk among the dead.
These are the Catacombs of Paris.
In the late 1700's there was a problem in the southern part of the city. For centuries bodies had been buried a the Cemetery Of The Innocent and some others, and apparently not always buried very well. There was no room left and there was a bigger problem that eventually led to the creation of this.
The cemeteries were so overfilled and some of the bodies so improperly buried that the water was getting contaminated. Disease was spreading through Parisian neighborhoods at an alarming rate. The source was the rotting, decaying human remains on the outskirts of the city. Under the outskirts of the city...there was a solution.
There were deserted quarries from which stone had been extracted for centuries to build the city. It was decided that the quarries would be the new resting place for the old bones. Between 1786 and 1788 the bodies were removed from cemeteries and stacked up, piled up, even arranged artistically at times, in the long tunnels and passages and niches underground.
It's estimated that the remains of between 6 and 7 million former Parisians now rest inside the Catacombs. The place has been an attraction for visitors since just a few decades after it was completed. Thousands of tourists walk down the dozens of steps and into this dark depository every year. I went when I was in Paris earlier this year because some friends had recommended it as a unique thing to see. It certainly is that.
It takes about 45 minutes to walk nearly a mile through the tunnels literally lined floor to ceiling with human remains. You see walls made out of skulls and you start to think about the fact that every one of them was a human who lived a life. You recognize some of the larger bones as femurs and you realize they were legs that once walked the streets above.
It is a little gruesome, a little disturbing but at the same time it's fascinating. It's far enough down that it's cold in there, like a cave. That adds to the physical feeling of being engulfed in death. There is a certain sense of reverence you feel when you're surrounded by the remnants of so many lives that ended so long ago. I timed this blog entry as a Halloween-type piece but this experience is more surreal than spooky. It's a strange place to be but with the history of how it came to be....it does make sense.
There's plenty to see above ground in Paris...but add this to the list too, as something you probably won't see anywhere else...and something you might not want to!
We'll talk again soon.
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