TRIP 8/9 Death Beguiles Me: the Catacombs of Paris

By Wednesday we were all begging to spend a day laying around or at least not taking trains. Mimi and I walked two blocks to E. Dehillerin as a pilgrimage to Julia Child's and every other important chef's favorite culinary supply stores.

Fancy copper pots
Future Martha Stewart

It was a bit intimidating, but of course Mimi charmed the old guys who run the place and they showed her around and gave her a gigantic spoon to pose with. She purchased some crepe making supplies.
Then we did some girl time shopping nearby our hotel and went home to rest.
By that afternoon we were pretty much tripped out. We didn't have one more museum left in us. We'd had enough crepes. We'd seen the major sites and I'd tricked them into believing that I am too scared of heights to go up in the Eiffel Tower (so we just visited instead). There was a science museum that piqued our interest so we trekked over there, checked it out for an hour and resolved to come back when either we knew more French or had a whole day to explore. There was one more place we wanted to visit and at 5pm on a Wednesday night in the rain we HOPED it wouldn't have the typical three hour line.
We headed for the Catacombs. The French catacombs are one of my very favorite places on God's green earth. I don't know why I'm drawn to morbid environments but something about cemeteries and old churches just captivates me. Two of my other favorite dead people places are Kutna Hora outside of Prague where monks have created an incredible chandelier from human bones and the Chapel of the Chimes mausoleum in Oakland built by the woman who built Hearst Castle.

The greatest part about this trip has been all of the questions that invariably come from exposing children to art and buildings reminiscent of great moments in history. At the wax museum they needed to know how many people died of the plague and where it came from. At the Rijksmuseum they needed to know what made Napoleon so important. At Cleopatra's needle where the guillotine once stood they needed to know all about why they were chopping off people's heads. At Anne Frank's house they wanted to know where she was buried. And at the Louvre they wanted to know how and why all of those mummies came to live at the grand old museum.
When you talk about history you have to talk about death and in Europe that means mass death. We're talking 800 people a day dying from plague rats, 20 people an hour by guillotine for years and years, and 6 million Jews murdered by Hitler. That's a lot of dead bodies to manage. These cities are so old that they have body disposal problems. The cemeteries fill up. The grave diggers would try to bury one body and unearth ten people's bones, some hundreds of years old. And when hundreds of people are dying a day the only way to manage them is to dump them in mass graves.
So around 1772 the stench and pestilence around the cemeteries was souring the milk in the surrounding homes and the attic ossuaries around the cemeteries were so overloaded they began to collapse. At the same time Paris was filled with sinkholes caused by the miles of limestone quarries beneath the city from which all of the gorgeous chapels and buildings were built. They had taken the rock from underground and stacked it above ground and Paris was starting to cave in.
The solution presented itself: the support columns would be built in the quarries and the quarries would be filled with the ancient bones from all of the cemeteries. The cemeteries, thus emptied, would be closed and new ones on the outside of the city would be opened.
And so the sifting began. Imagine the morbid process. Because it was distasteful, the whole enterprise was done in the night. The workers would sift the land in the cemeteries and load the bones onto carts. The carts were then covered in black cloth and ceremoniously dragged to the opening of the quarries. Once there they were dumped and then stacked into patterns out of respect for the dead. Once imbedded into the tunnels a plaque saying which cemetery the bones came from was placed in front of the stacks. They are all anonymous. There are bones from every age in the history of Paris, including the French Revolution which took place in the middle of the cemetery relocation. If a grave of a famous person in French history is unknown, chances are their bones are down there -- equal if not in life then in death.
And the volume, the vastness of the ossuary is astounding. You really have to go there to see the magnitude. There are more people buried under Paris than there are living above.
So yeah, I took my little kids there. They were freaked out. We touched some bones and jumped out to scare people and were rewarded with a security tail.

You can talk to kids about history and you can watch rad YouTube videos to fill in the gaps you don't know. They can read Anne's Diary and they can see pictures. But nothing will leave quite the same impression as (illegally) handing your nine year old a human femur from five hundred years ago. That kid has seen what politics, plagues and history can do. And that, my friends, is why it's important to me to drag my kids halfway around the world.


Camille said...

You scared way too many times in the Catacombs. Won't be returning anytime soon.

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