Beneath Paris’ city lights, an eerie and dark underworld preserves itself in silence from excessive tourist inspection. An entire network of passages, streets and squares lie invisible to the common crowds of chic cafes and busy restaurants. I took a detour from my usual Parisian night walks during the Christmas festivities and decided it was time to take a tour down the metropolis’s wormholes.
My mind was already going down a cochlear path of delirium as I pondered about the afterlife during a visit to Paris’ largest cemetery. Maybe I’ll end up in a casket I said to myself. Or do I want to be cremated and want my ashes to fly with the wind into the ocean? What will people remember of me? Will they? It would be cool to be in display in some futuristic museum 100 years from now. But how … Ah! Disgusting! Damn it! The earth is dripping. Where is the water coming from? I asked myself as I looked up. The whole floor was wet, and the skulls were too. I assumed it was the rain water filtering through the Parisian limestone.
I had waited two and a half hours to get into Les Catacombes, Paris’ unique cemetery. Don’t mind the Pere Lachaise or Montparnasse, which was about three blocks away from the Catacombes and where Beauvoir and Sartre rest so romantically on top of each other in their grave. It was cloudy, and of course I was thinking about the future and the past, what I had done back in Israel and what would become of me in the months ahead in Denmark. But it was ominous to think about my future death and about the approximately six million people buried beneath a single ossuary in Paris’s 14th arrondisement (but the skeletons are actually stocked like wine bottles in cellars extending into other neighborhoods too).
The entrance to this curious cemetery feigns to be just any other box office at another low-key Parisian theater, but when you cross the threshold into hundreds of funereal tunnels, the name “Death” takes on another meaning. I spiraled 130 steps down from street level to a bed of limestone 45 million years old that was created during the Lutetian geological period. (“Lutetia” was the ancient name for Paris.) During this period, Paris had a tropical seashore from an advancing sea from northern Europe. Its marine sludge slowly became limestone that was compressed by the emerging Pyrenees over the last 20 million years and left some gastropodic fossils for me to check out as I walked along the tunnels. Long story short, the tunnels were left abandoned after they had served their purpose during the Middle Ages up until the Gothic period and were, by the eighteenth century, caving in and producing panic in the human world upstairs. So, the Paris authorities had the ominous idea to strengthen the tunnels and fill them with the bones from the Cimetiere des Innocents — which was overwhelmed by old Parisian bones that were becoming a health hazard to the living population — and also from other deconsecrated cemeteries. Abandoned after the French Revolution, the necropolis opened again and survived to see French Resistance soldiers, the construction of a German bunker and, more recently, some mysterious improvised cinema exclusive to some kind of film noir sect, or so it was believed back in 2004.
I felt lonesome as I tried to label with proper names the skulls I was staring at, given that the tunnels have indeed almost elegiac names with their construction date and patrons properly labeled. (Actually, some of the bones in other arrondisements receive some illicit visits from the Cataphiles — an underground secret society of anarchistic artists, lawless fugitives or otherwise rebels without a cause.) The doleful eye sockets, the femurs and the decomposing stench of some of them, piled up in anonymity, didn’t bother me at all. But the nuisance of their loneliness was heartbreaking, as if seeing their bodies breaking into smaller and smaller splinters was awakening my anxiety and infecting me with despair to know exactly what death I will have but more importantly, whom I will join after that …
I wondered if perhaps in life any of them ever went down into Les Egouts, as I did after visiting the Catacombes. Modestly tucked next to Pont de l’Alma metro station and a few steps from the Seine, the Musee des Egouts is the start point to immerse yourself in Paris’ smelly history. What we now know as Les Egouts is the culmination of hundreds of years of architectural puzzling of Paris’ sewage system. The Seine River was a putrid carrier of wastewater from where, unfortunately, Parisians would withdraw their drinking water. Under Napoleon I, two men worked tirelessly to solve Paris’ wastewater evacuation problem. One of them, Emmanuel Bruneseau, sewer inspector and close friend of Victor Hugo, surveyed the existing sewage system. Some of that concrete survey information channeled its way into Les Miserables. We then have the leading character Jean Valjean escaping into Les Egouts in his effort to save his adopted daughter’s dying love Marius from slowly sinking into slimy, fetid sewage water. Hundreds of years later, I’m the one trying to avoid any rancid drop of water from falling on my face and hair yet wishing like a little kid fascinated with grossness to do the underground boat cruise the museum used to offer some time ago.
If you’d like to get more up close and personal with Paris’ “suburban” matrix you will have to go great lengths. I, at least, know exactly where my next party will be once I move to Paris for good.
Image source: Susan Urrutia, contributor to The Daily Californian