Week 46: Gate of Hell, Paris Catacombs
"I'm bone tired of standing in this line. Why aren't we moving forward?"
"Don't know...they must be working with a skeleton crew."
"Well, they must be numskulls if they didn't anticipate this crowd."
"I have a bone to pick with you...it's about your use of puns."
"What, you don't find them humerus? It's ok, patella me the truth, I'm hip enough to handle it."
"Tibia truthful, some of them do crack me up....but sometimes it's not appropriate to be punny."
"Like when? Now? When we're about to descend 5 stories into a subterranean crypt and pass through the Gate of Hell....is it too much?"
Nods solemnly. "Yeah....maybe show some spine and back off a bit? I think going down into the catacombs requires a more solemn attitude."
"You're right. It's probably crass to be making jokes about this. I read that the bones of 6-7 million people are down there....I'm sure for some it is a spiritual experience to visit the catacombs...maybe like a religious pilgrimage of sorts. I'll stop now."
"Thanks, I appreciate it."
"You're welcome. I know how to show respect. (Pause) The last thing I'd want to be is a blasfemur."
When faced with morbid situations, many people deflect their feelings of discomfort in various ways, including humour. The Paris Catacombs could easily be considered morbid when you know the facts about how it came to be the resting place for so many people.
By the 17th century, Paris no longer had space to bury its dead, and had a corpse crisis to deal with. Cemeteries were overflowing to the point where it was no longer possible for bodies to be buried properly. This resulted in rotting corpses popping out of their graves after heavy rainfalls. Also, the stench of decomposing flesh filled the air in certain neighbourhoods. It had become a serious health concern too, as disease began to spread due to improper burial techniques.
There are over 200 miles of labyrinthine tunnels under Paris. Dating back to the 13th century, limestone was mined here, and used for building the very city that lies above it. Despite initial resistance to the idea of emptying the cemeteries, mostly from churches because they didn't want to disturb the dearly departed, a solution had to be found soon. The decision was finally made to move the bones into the abandoned tunnels of the limestone quarries.
The bones were grouped by the cemetery they were exhumed from and a plaque marks each section. They are stacked against the walls of the tunnels, from floor to ceiling in most places, some forming piles that are ten feet high.
Morbid? Maybe, for some. I, however, think the catacombs are one of the best examples of human ingenuity, problem-solving and creativity. Especially after I witnessed, for myself, how carefully the bones were stacked. Some of the bones were placed in symmetrical patterns, or formed into hearts and crosses. It was done in a thoughtful and organized manner. A respectful reverence is evident.
There is a dire warning at the tunnel entrance that says, "Arette, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!". (Translated: "Stop, this is the empire of death!"). Some say the Gate of Hell is in the catacombs. This is usually followed up with the warning that if you veer off into the forbidden areas, you could easily get lost and stumble into the Gate of Hell by accident. Perhaps all this is an attempt to ward off trespassers, grave robbers or illicit explorers from venturing off on their own. I'm glad we didn't stop. I left the catacombs feeling inspired and awestruck, and knew I'd have to include a painting in this portal series.