Sunday, July 6, 2008

Six million Parisians


The Catacombs of Paris is a famous ossuary complex in the disused limestone quarries under the fourteenth arrondissement. When the urban cemeteries around the churches of Paris grew so full that they began to spread disease and endanger the water supply, somebody had the bright idea of removing them to the miles of quarry tunnels under the city. This happened at about the same time that the City of Paris established a commission for the inspection of the quarries, which cut through the limestone beds some 20 meters below ground level, and which sometimes caused subsidences of streets and buildings above before they were inspected and reinforced. The commission was appointed in 1777, and part of the tunnel system was designated for use as an ossuary in 1786, although bones continued to be moved into the catacombs through the nineteenth century.

One enters the catacombs at Place Denfert-Rochereau, through a cast-iron shelter obviously set up in the nineteenth century, when the Romantic fascination with death led them to become a Parisian attraction:


To reach the tunnels, one descends an extremely long spiral staircase (130+ steps) which becomes a sort of surreal experience even before one comes to the quarries proper. There is then close to a kilometer of galleries to traverse before coming to the ossuary area; but this is interesting in itself as it forms a sort of museum of the limestone quarries and the practices of the miners, who did things like dig wells so they could have access to water while mining, and carve little scenes here and there from the rock:


Eventually you come to the ossuaries. The image at the beginning of this post is the verse over the door to the first chamber. The scene inside is indescribable: the skeletons of over six million Parisians, including the sculptor Girardon, the architect Mansart (inventor of the mansard roof), and Madame de Pompadour, together with innumerable nameless souls of the last seven or eight centuries, are piled inside in ornamental patterns. It would have seemed oddly disrespectful to take pictures, even if I had known how to turn off the flash on our camera, but there are some images here. The long bones and skulls are piled neatly in "walls" between limestone columns adjoining the walkways, and the other bones are thrown behind them in a jumble, often stretching backward for several meters.

It is difficult to give a sense of the impression these ossuaries give: I thought it would be the proximity of human bones that would strike me the hardest, but as it turned out it was the sheer quantity that really stays with me. It's not the number of bones that boggles the mind so much as the number of individuals, the number of lives lived on the streets of Paris. Six million is the usual estimate of the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust; but facing six million skeletons is a very different thing from contemplating this number in the abstract. (In fact, since the urban burial grounds of Paris were generally consecrated Christian cemeteries, there are probably few skeletons of Jews in the catacombs.) You realize that some of these people were happy, and some were miserable; some kind, and some cruel; some learned, some ignorant. All the sorts of lives that could be lived in Paris from the medieval period to the end of the eighteenth centuries were lived by these people.

One thing I hadn't thought about was the way human skulls differ from each other, which is particularly visible in the catacombs where they are laid in long rows. Even without their lower jaws, each has its own apparent expression, its own slightly different morphology; I hadn't really thought about how much the individual uniqueness of a human face was due to the underlying architecture of bone. It must be true of most of the bones in the ossuary, in fact, but it is the skulls that really give this impression. I had rarely thought of how delicate and fragile-seeming a human skull is, that contains so much of what we think we are; and how it bears the traces of human development in the sutures of bone that close in early childhood.

Each of these skeletons was nurtured by the wheat fields, orchards, and vineyards of Paris, by its dairies and its calcium-rich water (that filters up through the same layer of limestone through which the quarries are cut; even today I start my days with a cup of tea and limescale), harvest after harvest, lifetime after lifetime. The fruitfulness of long-lost farms is here, and the persistence of human life: through poverty, revolution, and war, come hunger or wealth, we continue to laugh, and quarrel, and love, to endeavor, to forget, to take risks, and to trust each other.

The catacombs are decorated with tablets and inscriptions from poets and writers (and the Bible, naturally) on the subject of death. They tend to be on the "memento mori" ("remember that you must die") theme; I wish I could find a place where they were collected. Some were taken from classical or Biblical sources, some from French poetry, and some were "on the spot" comments by famous people who had visited the catacombs, including, if memory serves, a King of Sweden. The one I remember is from Psalm 116: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."


Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone has thought to check Madame de Pompadour's for those time-travel indicating particles.

Jerry A. said...

This is gorgeous writing, Kate. Some day something on the architecture of death or community or both should include these lines.

I tried something vaguely similar here: