In the Empire of the Dead: A Journey Through the Catacombs of Paris
There is a queue, there is always a queue. It curls round an unexpectedly uninteresting eighteenth-century building surrounded by busy roads in the Montparnasse district of Paris. And as we stand there in the summer sunshine, high spirits fade into boredom, tempered by growing unease – for we are standing at the Barrière d’Enfer (the ‘Gate of Hell’), waiting to enter the Empire of the Dead, the Catacombs of Paris.
We are admitted in batches to regulate the flow of tourists. But the laughing crowd thins out as one descends the spiral stairs, deeper and deeper. The crowd has all but gone as one navigates the long tunnels. Soon, I am alone, somewhere underneath Paris. There is only forward (back is never an option). Footfalls echo in the silence. Electric light burns confidently along the walls, never once giving a flickering sign that darkness is the true master here. But one feels it in the pit of the stomach.
Unexpectedly one finds the crowd again, gathered nervously in the anteroom to the catacombs proper. Here we pretend to examine displays and run our eyes over dense passages of text giving the history of the catacombs in multiple languages, but everyone’s attention is focused on the narrow passage flanked by black and white painted stonework above which is written:
Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort
Today’s visitor stops only for a selfie before plunging heedless into the endless empire. But human remains enforce their own solemnity. Here is your future, they say. No words are necessary. These are not symbols nor representations. They were once people with all the aliveness that you now feel. In our media-saturated virtual lives, only death can shock us from our trance state. These bones are an ancient mystery religion, their mute testimony a humbling initiation. Like Aghoris, those Hindu ascetics who make their home and temple on the charnal ground, we find strange paths to enlightenment weaving among stacks of thousands upon thousands of bones. We inhale the incense of the lowest hell, mouldering stone and bone dust, a perverse cannibal perfume. We are in the Valley of Death and that secret wisdom that stares from every unseeing eye socket is that we are always in the Valley of Death. These bones are our bones. Their fate is our fate.
The gift shop slaps us out of our new-found enlightenment, with its assortment of skull-and-bone-themed novelty items. I buy a fridge magnet, two skull-shaped pencil erasers and a skull-shaped boiled egg former. The commercialization of corpses and corruption comes in a nice charnal-themed carrier bag. And as I trip back out onto the summer-hot streets, I find myself not far from the venue for this year’s Parapsychological Association Convention. I realize with pleasant horror that, as they wondered about the afterlife (and sundry items from the parapsychological menu) above, I wandered in the afterlife almost exactly below.
Every year around 500,000 people visit the 1.7 km of the underground passages open to the public (less than one per cent of the total) for a glimpse of the six million people interred here.
The full article was originally published as Leo Ruickbie, ‘In the Empire of the Dead: A Journey Through the Catacombs of Paris’, Paranormal Review, 91 (2019).