Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Catacombs of Paris

This is what we went to see the first afternoon we were in Paris, after we finally made it through customs at the airport (the line moved sooo slow), so visiting old bones was our first excursion in Paris. But it was close to our hotel and something that was on my list of things to do in Paris, although Robert was skeptical. I told him it would be cool!

The story of the catacombs is that during the late 1700's the cemeteries in Paris were filled past capacity and had been a health hazard for some time. The police prefect who was in charge of finding something to do about the cemeteries was also in charge of making sure that an array of underground limestone quarries was stabilized and wouldn't cave in anymore. So he had the great idea of combining these two projects and removing all the bones and bodies from the cemeteries and throwing them into the old limestone quarry tunnels.

In the limestone tunnels after descending 130 steps, no bones yet.

During WW II the French Resistance used the tunnels, and so did the Germans.

This was carved by a worker in the limestone quarry over the course of years in his spare time. It is a building where he was formerly imprisoned (someplace I'm sure was embedded in his mind). Unfortunately for the worker while he was carving stairs for people to come see his great work the tunnel collapsed and he was killed.

Back to the catacombs story. So in 1786 they had a ceremony and started removing the bodies from the cemeteries. For the next two years they would transport the bones by night in black veiled carts followed by priests singing the service for the dead. They deposited the remains of six million people into the catacombs. At first they just dumped all the bones in, but twenty or so years later, at the height of Romanticism, the head of the Paris mine inspection service decided to organize the bones neatly and form patterns in the bones. There are even patterns of skulls shaped like hearts and in the form of churches

When they organized the bones they put in plaques with quotes and poems having to do with death.

 "Believe that everyday is your last."

They also put in plaques listing which cemetery the bones in that area came from and what year they were deposited there.
July 2, 1809

This is an example of how the limestone tunnels would collapse the ground above. The ceiling would slowly break away until it broke through the top and gave way. Now they closely monitor the tunnels to prevent things like this from forming and reinforce this so it doesn't deteriorate.

At the end Robert told me that he had to admit he had his doubts, but it was pretty cool.

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