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The International Writers Magazine: The Dead of Paris - Archives

What Lies Beneath
Brett Longstaff
Parisians are going about their daily Parisian type things. Such favourite French pastimes like talking politics (loudly), drinking coffee from miniature mugs and putting the moves on pavement poodle poo. I am at Place Denfert-Rochereau, in the 14th Arrondissement and just a few k’s to the south of postcard Paris. 


I am still yet to comprehend why its previous name, Place d’Enfer or ‘Place of Hell’ would come to seem a much more appropriate mantle. Its main square is depicted in Puccini’s La Boheme, however otherwise Denfert-Rochereau seems to hold very little for doggy-doo dodgers of the tourist variety.

Now then, no point jumping to such a narrow minded and hasty conclusion like this before taking in one of the cities oldest and lesser known attractions. Was I was really ready to become acquainted with some senior citizens below sea level?

In Roman times, cities such as Paris, buried their dead on the outskirts of the city.  With the rise of Christianity, burials closer to home, that being the church, became the mode du jour. Fast-track 800 or 900 years into the 18th century, Paris has grown massively in numbers and hindsight has become a wonderful thing. Parisian grave plots have now become blue chip real estate and only the extremely wealthy receive proper burials. Common folk experience the send-off of a previously used coffin and entry into one of the mass graves which are now bursting at the seams. The health of the living had become an issue and decay of bodies in these mass graves was causing huge sanitation problems for a city whose primary source of water was from underground. The dead were outnumbering the living and Paris was fast running out of places to put them.

Not knowing really what to expect, I read the inscription upon the stone portal on entry; “Arrete, c’est  ici  l’empire de la mort” .  I had just commenced playing rugby in France and my knowledge of the language was very slightly on the up. This however was a phrase that hadn’t come up too much in idle chit chat amongst rugby mates. I was getting ‘stop’, ‘death’ and ‘here’ which immediately cast my doubts on proceeding another step  further into this so called ‘tourist attraction’ and had me speculating just  as to why it hadn’t been given a gig  in the Lonely Planet.

Deadparis The ‘Empire of the Dead’ was the brains trust of Alexandre Lenior,  an archaeologist more involved in saving France's historic monuments, sculptures and tombs during the revolution. His idea of exhuming the decomposed remains from these crammed mass graves and into underground tunnels was soon after put into practice. The processions of chanting priests and bone-laden horse drawn wagons continued between 1786 and 1788 until all of the around about six million no longer vertical Parisians had found their new resting place.

This relocation to just a few hundred metres below Denfert-Rochereau’s cheek kissing,  breathing residents of today forms  l'Ossuaire Municipal or as it now more commonly known amongst locals and tourists, Les Catacombes de Paris.

I entered solo, descended the few hundred metres required and upon entering the labyrinth of tunnels experienced one of the most bizarre sensations in my lifetime. Maybe I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared for what I was about to see. Perhaps mundane tourist traps, accordion players and hurtling around museums at light speed had dulled my senses. I was on the back foot, reeling as a result of coming face to face with the brickies, bankers and IT crowd of centuries gone by. I stood there;  isolated amongst this collection of calcium and previous personalities. Was this Madame Tussauds idea of a twisted new business venture in replicating passed on Parisians like Piaf? I went cold and clammy, all alone but still not ‘all alone’ enough to feel comfortable singing out of tune or scratching my derriere!

It was Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury who, in 1810, led his team in rearranging the bones into the ordered structure we see today. Men were specifically assigned the role of breaking femurs (the long bone of the leg) in two, as for a best fit result. I dawdled out of respect; and shock.  Each and every skull to me became a totally different entity, with varying likes and dislikes, identity, individuality, temperament, likeability and life experiences very unlike that who they, now literally ‘rub shoulders with’.  It did feel a little insignificant that six million life stories, today, have had their thigh bones broken in two just so that the puzzle fits.

The catacombs had me blown away, and my imagination going haywire.  Forty minutes later I climbed the stairs to street view and it felt like it had all been some sort of weird dream. There were no gift shops, postcards to write, tours on sale and no one touting a tibia.  Feeling meagre and numb, I strolled off to join the 11 million Parisians up top, to talk Sarkozy over an espresso forte and get on with my very normal life.

© Longstaff, Brett May 2011

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