Friday, June 20, 2008

Macabre Paris: Human Calcium Deposits

Countless bones and skulls are stacked neatly.

In mid-September, 2009, these catacombs were vandalized. Somehow one or more people gained illegal entry and did a great amount of damage, tearing out the ancient bones from their neat stacks and sculptural arrangements, smashing them and tossing them onto the floor, “with a pick-axe” according to some reports. The Catacombs will be closed at least until the end of the year, so that things can be cleaned up and repaired. Some of the damage is permanent, of course, since the bones themselves cannot be replaced.

The entrance to this underground world is at Place Denfert (14th Arrondissement), through a simple black door on an unassuming building located right across the street from the Denfert-Rochereau métro station. The catacombs are part of a network of 186 miles of subterranean tunnels and rooms located in abandoned limestone quarries. Only about one mile is open to the public. These quarries provided the limestone used to construct the medieval walls and ramparts of Paris, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the Louvre fortress and many other structures still extant throughout the city.
Skeleton storage in these empty quarries began in 1786 as the Les Halles district of Paris was suffering from disease due to the contamination caused by improper burials and open mass graves in churchyard cemeteries. Many churchyards had risen about eight feet above street level to accommodate thirty generations of graves. For health reasons it was decided to close these cemeteries and remove the bones to the abandoned quarries. Every night for fifteen months carts of skeletons left the Les Halles cemeteries accompanied by a torch-lit procession of priests who intoned a requiem mass.
It is estimated that around 6 million skeletons from more than 30 cemeteries were transferred by the time the project was completed in 1860. No attempt was made to identify individual bodies, but each grouping of bones was marked with a plaque to indicate the cemetery of origin and the year of the transfer. Tibias and femurs by the thousands are stacked neatly, interspersed with rows of skulls, which are sometimes arranged artistically in a cross or other geometric pattern.
There is a documented instance of truly macabre proportions. Philibert Aspairt, a doorkeeper of the Val-de-Grâce hospital, descended into the catacombs by way of a staircase in 1793 and was never seen again. Eleven years later his still clothed decomposed body, showing visible evidence of gnawing by rats, was found at the spot where he had become hopelessly lost. The set of keys on his belt identified him as the lost gatekeeper of Val-de-Grâce.
These days tourists have a slightly less sinister experience. After purchasing a ticket, visitors descend a spiral staircase to enter a small gallery of photographs and drawings. Beyond the gallery, a path through long tunnels leads to a large chamber with a sign over the entrance to a hallway that reads: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” (Stop! This is the empire of death). Not for everyone, perhaps.
The catacombs, recently closed for structural reinforcement, reopened in February, 2008.
Open daily 10:00a-5:00p except Mondays.
Métro: Denfert-Rochereau
Entrance at 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. Admission fee 7€. Last tickets sold at 4:00 p.m.

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