The Catacombs of Paris

November 18, 2010

I will write a full post about Day 4 in Paris, but I am writing a separate post about my experience in the Catacombs of Paris for two reasons. First, the fourth day of my trip was full & bursting at the seams. And second, my experience in the catacombs was so important & intense that it needs its own post to do it justice.

The Catacombs of Paris is an elaborate underground tunnel system that houses the skeletal remains of over 1.6 million people. These “burial grounds” exist in what used to be the Paris stone mines. This unique combination makes the catacombs like a cross between an underground mining system and a sacred tomb of epic proportion.

Sculptures at the front of the caverns

History

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Paris had a problem with burying the dead. There simply was not enough room. All of the allotted burial grounds were overflowing. In some areas, the Earth was filled beyond saturation with decomposing human remains. The situation was unsanitary.

Then, in 1786, a police lieutenant overseeing the renovation of the Paris stone mines, had the idea to use the empty underground tunnels to house the bones. On April 7th of that year, the ceremonial procedure of exhuming bodies and transporting them into the catacombs began. Chanting priests in a parade of black-covered bone-laden horse-drawn wagons led the procession from the overflowing cemeteries and into the caverns. The process continued for several years.

Entire walls of bones

Description

The Catacombs entry is in the western pavilion of Paris’ former Barrière d’Enfer city gate. To enter the catacombs, you descend 63 feet into the Earth, down a narrow spiral staircase. Once in the catacombs there is sheer silence save for the occasional drip of water or the gurgling of a hidden aqueduct beneath the dirt. You pass through twisted hallways of dirt and caverns before coming to the walls of carefully arranged bones. Some of the arrangements are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias; another is a round room whose central pillar is also a carefully created ‘keg’ bone arrangement.

My Experience

Exploring the Catacombs of Paris is a mind-altering experience. It is not for the faint of heart and it is highly unlikely that any true claustrophobic would make it out alive. Still, for me it was an experience that I will never forget. I challenged myself to stare fear in the face and press forward in spite of it.

What follows are the notes that I jotted down in my Moleskine shortly after my journey through the catacombs:

The only thing I can say with complete certainty regarding the catacombs is that every person should experience at least once.

You descend the spiral stairs into the very depths of the Earth & begin to traverse the caverns where you find the skeletal remains of over 1.6 million people lining the walls. You are overcome with every emotion possible: I am deep in the Earth. Paris can come collapsing down on me in an instant—a mouthful of dirt, collapsing of the lungs, suffocation, immediate paralysis. And that would be the end.

Then of course there are the walls, literal walls of skulls & bones. And you just keep walking & when you think there is just no way it can keep going on this way—it goes on. Then finally after some moments that feel like hours & other moments that feel like lifetimes, you know you have come to the end. And there is a second spiral staircase. And you ascend, and you keep going up & up & up. This really feels like lifetimes. Because you are alone and there is no voice, no one beside you.

You think, for sure, the Earth & light should be visible by now. But it’s not, so you just keep going up. Your legs scream & your lungs sob, but you have no choice but to keep ascending. And you think—this is hell. Now I know what hell is. Keep moving & never getting anywhere. Alone, forever.

Nearing the end...?

But then! There is light & you’ve made it. It was never hell but some twisted, beautiful version of heaven meant to teach you what you thought was impossible to ever know.

There were only two workers in the catacombs—one at the entrance and the other in the caverns. The second one approached me and asked if I was alone. Yes, I replied. (What choice did I have? It was perfectly obvious.) He looked shocked. I have never seen a woman come through alone. Men, yes. Groups, yes. But never a woman alone.

I am not sure if he was serious or simply trying to boost my ego. Still the experience was somewhat terrifying at moments. I find that sometimes I push myself toward terror. I can’t stop. This is my life. It is the only way. I have not gone far enough.

Of course this post is about the Catacombs of Paris—an adventure that I would highly recommend if you ever find yourself in Paris—but it is also about courage. Visiting the catacombs was a small metaphor for my entire trip to Paris. I was afraid to visit a foreign country alone—in fact, I was terrified. It was not easy to venture across the Atlantic to a place where I could not even speak the language—but I did it.

Likewise, the catacombs were frightening. As I stood at the entrance about to purchase my ticket, I thought about turning back. But that feeling only lasted for a millisecond. No way, I assured myself, You have come this far. You are the bravest girl in the world.

And that is the truth—the very core—of what I am getting at. I am the bravest girl in the world… and so are you. We are all far braver than we can even imagine. Sometimes we have to push ourselves far outside of our comfort zones to realize the depth of our bravery; but when we do it, we are amazed.

Thank you for reading. Leave me a comment and tell me about the scariest thing you’ve ever done. I would love to hear about it!

11 Comments

  • Andra Watkins

    Bravo! I don’t know if I could’ve done this one, but I will put it on my list for next time and try.

    The scariest thing I’ve ever done is climb a mountain. I’m very fearful of heights, but I like to hike. Over a couple of years, I had numerous meltdowns to get to the place where I can do lots of difficult hikes without fear. I still get queasy sometimes, but I can handle it.

    • Dena

      @ Andra – I think that if you are with a companion it will be a lot easier. The hardest part of the journey for me was being alone. One of my greatest fears is losing my mind. And there were moments down there when it was like–“Is this really happening?” That scares the hell out of me. Even just the voice of another person helps in those scenarios.

      Anyway, wow, mountain climbing! That is so amazing, especially considering your fear of heights. You are such an inspiration. It is so fantastic to hear that despite the obstacles — especially the queasiness — you push on.

      Thank you for sharing, love.

  • Dena Botbyl

    evolution you | The Catacombs of Paris http://bit.ly/bWsrgF

  • Dena Botbyl

    My most terrifying experience in Paris… The Catacombs! http://fb.me/xCQFaBKh

  • Dena Botbyl

    In case you missed it: The Catacombs of Paris http://bit.ly/bWsrgF

  • Alison Dailey

    Dena,
    I’m headed to Paris in 3 weeks and Andra sent me to your blog. I feel like I am in the Catacombs with me. Excellent writing!

  • Alison Dailey

    oops…I meant I felt like I was with YOU.

    • Dena

      @ Alison – Thank you so much for your kind words and I am SO jealous that you are headed to Paris. It is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever visited! You are going to have an amazing time. Please let me know if you have any questions. You can always email me denabotbyl (@) gmail (.) com or get me on Twitter or Facebook. XO

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  • brian v

    wow that is wild ! thanks for posting this

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