When I was stranded in Paris during the first volcanic eruption, I decided to visit the catacombs at Denfert-Rochereau. I had heard someone mention the ossuary in passing and I only had a vague idea of what it actually was, but I imagined a dark world of secrets beneath the City of Light.
The entrance to the catacombs is across the road from the Denfert-Rocherau Metro stop, close to Montparnasse Cemetry (a more dignified home for the dead, including the joint grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.) I arrived early enough to get a place near the front of a small line at the ticket office and to read a little about the place before it opened.
The catacombs are part of a 170-mile long subterrannean labyrinth formed by quarries that were created when Paris was built. The passageways and caverns of the catacombs are filled with the bones of people who died more than 300 years ago. By the late 1700’s, the threat of epidemic loomed as Parisian cemetries outgrew their capacity and overflowed with corpses. In 1786 the authorities ordered priests to start carrying the remains in wheelbarrows under cover of dark, singing funeral songs and blessing the bones before dumping them underground. By 1814, over 6 million Parisians, including Rabelais and Robespierre, found their final resting place here. The section that is open to the public is 1¼ miles long, and access is restricted due to the cramped conditions.
At that point, the slightly claustrophobic part of me started to question my adventurous spirit. If it weren’t for the fact that the man behind me had his young son with him, I might have decided that this was not such a good idea, after all. I wanted to ask him if he was sure he wanted to do this. For once I was glad my French was not up to the task. Before I could talk myself out of it, or offend anyone, I descended into the cavern below.
I was alone on my underground tour. There were people in front of me and people behind me — I could hear the faint echoes of their voices, but the winding passageways and dim lighting hid them from sight. The first part of the walk took me through long tunnels that were just wide enough and tall enough for me to touch with outstretched arms when I stood in the centre of the path. I kept on looking for bones, but there were none yet. Damp gravel crunched under my feet and it smelled crisp and clean in there, like a forest after rain. After a long walk where the path snaked perceptively deeper into the earth, I entered the first part of the ossuary proper. I shivered as I read the sign over the doorway:
“Arrêté! C’est ici l’empire de la mort!”
The low-ceilinged tunnel gave way to an intersection the size of a small room filled with human bones lined in macabre fashion against the walls, with thigh bones at the bottom, skulls arranged chair-rail fashion in the center and more bones on top - all laid out in rows one on top of the other. Variations on this pattern would be repeated for the rest of the 40 minute walk. My initial shock and subsequent morbid fascination wore off rather quickly. Imagine over a mile of tunnels, caverns and intersections decorated with skulls and bones, lit every 10 feet or so by lanterns that cast eerie shadows. In some places the ceilings dripped with water and the bones were turning green.
Even though I stared mortality in the face, it was hard to feel the presence of death in the catacombs. Perhaps it was just too surreal. I had been in cemetries that felt more somber, despite the lack of visible skulls. Then I put my hand on the damp iron railing of the tightly spiralled staircase at the exit, and the smell of blood rose up to greet me. I climbed those 83 steps in record time — without touching the handrail — and pushed through an umarked black door onto a sunny Parisian sidewalk. It felt good to be alive.
Tours of the tightly restricted ossuary are open to the public, as are the various enterprises in underground Paris, such as Ô Chateau, a popular wine-tasting room in a subterannean cavern. But entering the bulk of the underground network of tunnels, caverns and galleries in Paris is illegal, a fact that only seems to spur on secretive groups of people known as cataphiles who get together to explore this forbidden underworld.
The Guardian reported a curious finding in 2004:
“Police in Paris have discovered a fully equipped cinema-cum-restaurant in a large and previously uncharted cavern underneath the capital's chic 16th arrondissement. Officers admit they are at a loss to know who built or used one of Paris's most intriguing recent discoveries...Members of the force's sports squad, responsible - among other tasks - for policing the 170 miles of tunnels, caves, galleries and catacombs that underlie large parts of Paris, stumbled on the complex while on a training exercise beneath the Palais de Chaillot, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. After entering the network through a drain next to the Trocadero, the officers came across a tarpaulin marked: Building site, No access. Behind that, a tunnel held a desk and a closed-circuit TV camera set to automatically record images of anyone passing. The mechanism also triggered a tape of dogs barking, "clearly designed to frighten people off," the spokesman said. Further along, the tunnel opened into a vast 400 sq metre cave some 18m underground, "like an underground amphitheatre, with terraces cut into the rock and chairs". There the police found a full-sized cinema screen, projection equipment, and tapes of a wide variety of films, including 1950s film noir classics and more recent thrillers. None of the films were banned or even offensive, the spokesman said. A smaller cave next door had been turned into an informal restaurant and bar…Three days later, when the police returned accompanied by experts from the French electricity board to see where the power was coming from, the phone and electricity lines had been cut and a note was lying in the middle of the floor: "Do not," it said, "try to find us." ”