Monday, October 3, 2011

A Walk in the Catacombs of Paris

Nothing Says Fall or Ghost like a walk in the Catacombs of Paris.  In celebration of Jeff Belanger's new edition of the World's Most Haunted Places we thought we'd share his stories of this famous haunt excerpted from Chapter 9.

1, avenue of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
Paris, France
Tel: 33 (0) 1-43-22-47-63

9-1. The Catacomb Museum is open daily except for Mondays and bank holidays. Call for hours of operation. Tours are self-guided, though museum staff is available to answer questions. Photo by Jeff Belanger.[end]

“Avez-vous vu un fantôme?” I asked the man at the ticket counter in my best French if he has seen a ghost. “Je ne sais pas,” was his reply. The man smiled and shrugged his shoulders. When in Paris, France, you have your choice of world-class museums. The Louvre is an obvious choice, Musee d’Orsay is another well-known place, but there is one Paris museum that’s as haunted as it is macabre. You won’t find it on the Champs-Elysees; in fact, you won’t find it above ground at all. To get to the Catacombs, you’ll be traveling more than 20 meters below the city streets in the Montparnasse section of Paris.

There are human bones stacked in the tunnels under the city—a lot of them. But I wasn’t prepared for just how many there would be. I was ready to hear more accounts of the moving shadows and ghostly voices that have been reported throughout the centuries in those bowels of Paris, but I wasn’t ready for how the experience would make me feel.

The Catacombs of Paris are a network of tunnels and caves that run for more than 300 kilometers under the city. To build a city, you need materials. The Romans were the first to quarry the limestone in the area in 60 b.c.e.; however, those quarries were the open-air kind—the Romans just dug out the rock that was exposed. As the city grew and covered the landscape, tunneling would be required to get more building materials. In 1180 c.e., Philippe-Auguste became King. He was a major proponent of tunneling to quarry in order to build ramparts to protect the city, and it was under his rule that this tunnel network was truly born.

The quarries grew in size and complexity and produced building materials for centuries to come. Quarrying continued with reckless abandon until problems began to arise. In the 18th century, the city of Paris (and the weight of its buildings) continued to grow as the ground became more hollow underneath. Some buildings began to collapse and fall into the earth that was opening up below them. On April 4, 1777, the Inspection Générale des Carrières was formed to reinforce, fill in, or close sections of the tunnels deemed dangerous.
It was during the 18th century that a second problem arose for Parisians: The graveyards were getting full—very full. The Cimetière des Innocents (Cemetery of the Innocent) alone held more than 30 generations of human remains.

Taara, as she is known in the Paris underground, is the author of a French Website on the Catacombs, She explained to me, “Families used to pay the parish priest to bury their dead in here [the cemetery near the church]. The priest didn’t want to refuse money, so after a while, of course, there’s no more [room]. So many priests decided to build a sort of house for dead people, which is called a ‘charnier’ [mass grave]. The dead accumulated there.”

When you build a town or city, you place your cemeteries at the outskirts. It just makes sense. And Paris was no different. The problem emerged over centuries as the city sprawled and enclosed around the cemeteries, there was no place to go but up. Near the end of the life of the Cemetery of the Innocent, as well as several other cemeteries, the ground swelled more than 10 feet above the road. The smell was tormenting those who lived in close proximity to the graveyard. Some of the cemetery walls actually broke open, spilling rotting bodies onto the streets and into the cellars of some adjacent buildings. Soon after, disease took hold of those living in the vicinity, and people began dying from the pestilence spread by the corpses. The decision was made to start emptying the cemetery and to place the bones into the network of tunnels under the city. In 1785, when the bones were moved to the underground network en masse, the quarries became the Catacombs.

Disturbing the dead is a universal taboo. It’s understood across many cultures that one should leave the dead alone, and many go through great care to perform rituals and ceremonies to see their departed loved ones off to the afterlife. However, the living will always take precedence over the bodies of their kin who have passed on.

Located off the Denfert-Rochereau Metro stop, the Catacomb Museum exists to oversee the tunnels and bones, to teach the history of why the bones are there, and to provide the only means to visit the mortal remains of more than 1,000 years of Parisians. For €8 (euros), visitors can descend into the Catacombs.
A spiral cement staircase leads visitors down 130 steps, to 20 meters below the surface. At the bottom of the stairs, there are two rooms full of photographs of ancient graffiti from within the Catacombs as well as some of the below-ground structures. I quickly learn how vital this network of tunnels has been to the city of Paris. Not only did much of the limestone come from down here, and not only does it serve as a final (hopefully final this time) resting place for so many of the city’s dead, but during World War II, the Paris Underground operated down here in secret. The hidden tunnels were of vital importance to the war effort. Like veins beneath the flesh, you can feel the life blood of Paris down here.

After passing through the first two small rooms, I enter the actual Catacombs. The ceiling of the tunnel is as low as 6 feet and as high as about 12 feet on average, though some sections have an almost cathedral-looking structure high above my head. The lighting is very low, but my eyes quickly adjust.

The limestone walls are tan in color and cool to the touch. The fine gravel under my feet crunches with each step, and the only other sound I hear is an occasional drip-drip from somewhere in the tunnels. Right now I’m completely alone. Parts of the ceiling collect water in an upside-down puddle, and when the water gets too heavy, it drips—I catch a few of these cold reminders that gravity pulls everything downward, though I’m hopeful that won’t include the millions of tons of rock above my head.

Along the walls there are dated carvings and graffiti spray-painted in French. The tunnel makes 90-degree right and left turns, and in this part of the Catacombs, the environment feels like a tunnel in the rock—nothing more. I begin to wonder if I’m in the right place at all. I know what’s supposed to be down here, but I’m not seeing it.

After a few more long tunnels, rights, and lefts, I approach some painted pillars surrounding a narrow doorway. The sign on top reads: “Arrete! C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort”—“Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead.” Due to the difference in darkness between the two rooms, I can’t see what is in the tunnel beyond. I step through…
As I take my first step into the Ossuary of Denfert-Rochereaux, and my eyes adjust to the change in light, I’m overwhelmed. My heart rate picks up its pace, and my breathing becomes more shallow as I take in the sights all around me.

In a passage no more than 6 to 8 feet in width are stacks of human bones and skulls. At this doorway they are stacked about four feet high. The empty skulls greet me with empty but powerful stares. All around there is nothing but the ornate patterns of bones and skulls as far down the tunnel as light allows me to see. I learn later that six million human bodies are down here—only bones now. Though some bones can be found in the Catacombs in other parts of Paris, most of the bones are housed in the 1.7-kilometer stretch that the Catacomb Museum manages.

In different sections, the skulls form patterns within the stacks of arm and leg bones. There are skull crosses, hearts, arcs, and other groupings. The stacking of bones is intricate, symmetrical, and very macabre. Try to imagine how the people who had to stack these bones must have felt. Dumping millions of human remains down a 20-meter hole is not very respectful of the dead. Perhaps the meticulous care in the arrangement of the remains was the workers’ way of trying to give some dignity and beauty to the deceased.

All along the 1.7 kilometers of tunnels, there are off-shoots that are barred so visitors can’t get lost. 1.7 kilometers is only a tiny fraction of the overall network, but every turn of the head reveals bones, skulls, empty eye sockets. There are bones placed in other sections as well. Taara said, “In the nonofficial Catacombs, the bones are not placed as you’ve seen them. They are not well-ordered. They are just accumulated in a little gallery. So you have to crawl on them. It’s a very strange sensation, but after a while, it’s not really different than crawling on rocks.” Taara has been a “cataphile” for more than 20 years. In her younger days, she went into the tunnels several times a week. Now with her job and family, she still gets down below once a month.

Photo By Jeff Belanger

In different lengths of tunnel, there are signs marking which cemetery the particular bones came from, along with the date they were placed. The process started in 1785, and the oldest year marked in the museum is 1859. Though the movement of bones to the Catacombs wasn’t a nonstop process, for at least seven decades bones were being transferred below ground.

Taara said, “You can find bones in a very small part of the Catacombs. The most interesting thing is that those quarries are the witness of a great part of history. For example, you can still see traces of the Revolution or other important periods such as the World War II. You can see many places that are fabulously architected, the sort of architecture you can’t find now. So it’s really a very lovely place, and we are proud to know those places because most Parisian people do not know there’s another Paris under Paris.”

As I continued walking the tunnels, I could calm down a bit. I acclimated to the sight of all of the bones. I even found some beauty in their design. But as I started down a narrow passage lined with bones on both sides, something happened that changed me forever. As I gazed up I saw a shadow the size of a man move from the right side of the tunnel, to the left, and back again.

I froze. My heart started racing, adrenaline surged.

My mind quickly went through a checklist of possibilities: Did someone walk by me down here? No, impossible. The tunnel was no more than five feet wide, you would have literally bumped into me. Is there some side tunnel or offshoot that I missed? No, I looked soon after and saw nothing but rows of bones. Was the lighting low to the ground so that a little mouse could cast a giant shadow? No, the lighting was at shoulder-height and aimed downward. Am I of sound mind and body right now? Yes, it’s mid-morning and I’m well rested, no drugs or alcohol involved.

Then this experience starts to sink in. I have just seen what I believe to be a ghost. My first sighting of something profound that I can’t explain. I took a deep breath—because I needed to keep walking in the direction where I just saw this figure in order to eventually get out of the tunnels.

With each step this experience soaked in to me deeper, becoming a permanent part of me. This was the game-changing moment for me. I trust my senses. If I had this experience, then how many others out there have gone through something similar? This one moment that lasted no longer than three seconds validated the experiences of countless others who I’ve interviewed through the years.

As I came out of the fog of what just happened, I began my walk through the rest of the tunnels and back up to the surface. My senses were heightened now, I found myself looking in every corner, but I saw nothing else out of the ordinary the rest of the journey.

When I made my way back up to the surface, I saw a security guard standing near the exit. He asked not to be identified, but said, “Some people go down and they are very afraid after seeing the bones. Some say they hear things. Voices.”

Near the end of my Catacomb adventure, I remind myself that these people all had names. Every one of them was a person. Those 6 million people sacrificed their eternal resting ground so the city of Paris could grow and thrive. Noblemen’s bones are intertwined with peasants, families’ skeletal remains may be crushed with their ancestors’ bones, and visitors walk through all of it. There are 30 generations speaking to each passerby, forced into a single collective voice. If you listen closely, you may just hear some of those voices or maybe see the shadows of who they once were. 

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