TNT Travel Writing Awards 2008 Winner

By Charlotte Chester

I hand my two coins to the man at the gates
and step gingerly through. After descending the spiral staircase, I
continue along a gritty tunnel, which darkens and narrows as it twists
deeper under the earth. Finally I reach an inscription in the stone:
“Arrête! Cest ici l’empire de la mort”.  I’ve visited some pretty
strange places, but the Empire of the Dead takes the biscuit.

me to provide a little background, but be warned, it does get a bit
gruesome. The setting is Paris, 1786. Authorities have decided to close
several of the city’s cemeteries, including the largest, Les Innocents,
due to “insalubrity”. This is the salubrious way of saying that the
thirty generations of Parisians who inhabited the cemetery have
outgrown their accommodation. In places, the churchyard is bloated up
to ten meters above road-level and the boundaries are prone to
bursting, spilling decomposing corpses into the surrounding streets. So
gradually, under the cover of darkness, in ceremonial procession and
shrouded under black veils, the bodies are transferred from various
graveyards into the ancient underground quarries that honeycomb the

Today, an estimated 6 million former Parisians
populate the warren of corridors that is subterranean Paris. They are
who I am here to see.

Ignoring the warning to ‘Arrête‘, I
follow the tunnel as it advances into the gloom. The walls are now
decorated from floor to ceiling with embroidery-like patterns. The
patterns are made of human bones. Rows of carefully aligned ribs and
femurs form herringbone rows, surrounding diamonds and crosses of
skulls. At intervals, the bones frame stone plaques with words engraved
in French. The corridors continue like this, sometimes narrow,
sometimes opening into wider chambers, always with the same tapestry of
human remains. There is no breeze and the stagnant air smells faintly
chalky. I lick my lips reluctantly. Every so often there is an archway
or gap in the wall where the display has collapsed. In the gloom behind
the regimented formations, sprawls a legion in disarray. A tightly
packed rubble of vertebrae and crumbled bone reinforce the decorative

There are too many signs prohibiting me from touching
for me to pretend not to have noticed them…so I wait until nobody is
looking before tentatively resting the tip of my finger on someone’s
smooth and greenish brow. I know that this was once a person, but it is
a struggle to reconcile myself to the fact. Of the millions of bodies
relocated down here, none were labelled, gentry were laid alongside
peasants, men, women, old and young heaped and arranged
indiscriminately together. This brow could have belonged to literally
anyone who lived in Paris between about 1250 and 1800. As I repeat the
gesture, I imagine the reaction my prod might have had were I to step
back to when she was still alive. Would she stare in disbelief at my
impertinence from beneath her powdered wig, or would she hoist her
filthy skirts and flee, hurling back a string of French obscenities? As
I said, it is hard to equate this waxy looking skull with any realistic
concept of a person. 

Step back to behold the whole wall of
fleshless faces and femurs and the vertiginous feeling is magnified.
Every one of those legs once walked the streets of Paris and every
empty cranium once cradled a consciousness. I put my hand to my own
forehead, unable to imagine my skull without me inside it.

crunch of my footsteps and occasional quiet splat of water hitting damp
stone seem to amplify the silence. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve
been walking, but I hadn‘t imagined that even 6 million skeletons could
take up this much room. I find out later that the 1.5 km of catacomb
that is open to the public is only a fraction of the actual burial
site. The earth beneath the city has been so burrowed into, that plans
for new buildings need lengthy analysis just to check the land can
support another building. And even so, every so often a little part of
Paris will disappear beneath the surface.

Despite the
confinement, the hollow-eyed crowds give the impression of being
somewhere much bigger. It is almost a relief therefore, when I step
through a bone-built archway into a smaller chamber, built around a
small central pedestal. The same arrangements of bones reach up to a
domed ceiling. A foreign tour group are huddled inside and, speaking in
a language I don’t understand, their guide points out one skull.
Between gaping sockets, the skull proudly bears the bullet hole that
killed him. A neat circle, cleansed by time. The catacombs are no
stranger to conflict. In the Second World War, the Germans had a bunker
in the chambers beneath the Lycée Montaigne, a well known high school.
The complexity of the labyrinth allowed the Resistance to employ the
tunnel system simultaneously in their schemes to resist the occupation.
It does seem the natural setting for subterfuge and adventure, like
Cluedo’s hidden passage on a grand scale. It is with a hastened steps
that I walk the last of the route to the exit. 

Stepping out
onto the glistening Paris pavement, the images behind me instantly
assume an unreal quality. The eerie gloom of the underground almost
instantly dissolves into something close to a dream. Without pausing, I
go about the rest of my sight-seeing. I look at puppies in a pet shop
window. I stop for a croissant. But all the time I remain dimly aware
of those echoey vaults beneath my feet. Those 6 million dead,
populating a strange shadowy city, like a grotesque twin to the city of
style we know so well. As Paris glides about her daily life, the
Catacombs are ever-present, stowed away from the public gaze like
Dorian Gray’s portrait, and Paris is all the richer for it.