Tales from
the Loir

A Weekly Column

October 2, 2002 - Catacombs of Paris

After leaving the Compostelle 2000 office, I head back to the Montrouge neighborhood to see if I can find the Tomb of Issoire. Aprille and I searched the entire length of the rue de la Tombe d'Issoire and never found it. I am still curious to know the story of the Saracen giant who terrorized Paris.

As soon as I climb the steps out of the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop, I spot a History of Paris sign. It says that this is the location of the Tombe-Issoire and the Catacombs of Paris. Actually it is the entrance to an old quarry that has existed since Roman times and is supposedly the place where the giant was buried when he was slain by a monk from the desert named William.

The entrance to the quarry is in the vestibule of the offices of the Inspectorate of Quarries. There is a maquette and information about the quarry on the porch. I see from the information that there is a tour through what is called the Catacombs.

I decide to take the tour and see if I can find the bones of Issoire. The sign over the entrance says Gate's of Hell. Since it is past ten o'clock, I stick my head in the door and ask when they open. A young man tells me they open at eleven o'clock on Monday. I ask why the Gate's of Hell open on so late on Monday. He quips something glibly in French that amuses the other workers but it completely escapes me.

Humor is the last barrier to learning French but there is no end to the barriers to learning the opening times in France. I used to go the library in Vendome every day. It always opened at ten in the morning and half past one in the afternoon. When the petites fonctionaires in France see that someone has figured out the answer, they will quickly change the question. The library now opens at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and Monday, and it is closed all day on Thursday and Sunday. I don't go anymore. I can't figure out when it is open.

As the hour approaches, a large group of Italians arrive and begin to form a line. I note the irony of Italians visiting an ossuary in Paris. It is sort of like my Swiss friends who like to go to Disneyland in California to see the Matahorn. The catacombs of Rome and Naples are over two thousand years old and were the secret hiding places of early Christians who lived, prayed and buried their dead in them. A brochure at the ticket counter says that the Tombe-Issoire did not become an ossuary until 1786.

I follow the line of people to a spiral staircase that descends in a tight circle for sixty feet. Someone says that there are 120 steps but I am too dizzy and claustrophobic to count. It is a relief to enter the exhibition room of black and white photographs but I don't linger long. I am looking for the bones. The tour continues down a long square gallery with a low ceiling and a rough stone floor that crunches as I walk. It is dark and wet but a black line traces the trail as a precaution. A man is telling his spirited children about a man who entered the quarry alone and disappeared. A survey crew found his body fourteen years later. The story does little for the children but I make sure that I am in sight of the group that is moving along briskly.

After about a half-mile of crunching along we reach the catacombs. A sign over the door welcomes us with the cheerful words, Halt! You are entering the empire of Death. Et voila, the bones. The leg bones have been neatly stacked along with the occasional skull to form a wall about five feet high. But the wall is only a facade of neatness. Behind the wall the bones are just tossed in helter skelter. From time to time the skulls are set in a pattern like a heart or a cross. I walk for what seems like miles and occasionally hear noises in the distance when I get separated from the group. It is a little chilling but I realize that the noise is from the line of visitors who are in front and behind me and following the winding trail. The bobbing heads are at least a hundred feet away and I see that a solid wall of bones separates us. There are bones, bones and more bones. The path through the ossuary continues for about a mile and covers eleven thousand square meters.

There are occasional signs that show the sense of humor of the workers who must have needed relief from this macabre environment. Here are some examples:

Happy is he who is forever faced with the hour of his death, and prepares himself for the end every day.

Be aware every morning that you may not last the day, and every evening that you may not last the night.

But the best quote is at a place called Gilbert's Tomb:

At the banquet of life, an unhappy guest, I appeared just the once and now die! I die, and as I approach my place of rest, There is no one to lament me and cry.

Other signs designate where the bones came from. The catacombs were never a burial ground. All of the bones came from the overflowing cemeteries of Paris. By the end of the eighteenth century, the cemeteries of Paris were full. The worst problem was the Saints-Innocents Cemetery where bodies were tossed in open ditches and covered with a thin layer of dirt. Mountains of rotting bodies had climbed six feet above the level of the road. This cemetery had existed since Merovingian times and was in the center of the commercial district of Paris but merchants were accustomed to rubbing elbows with the dead. During the plague of 1348, there were over 500 burials each day and in 1418, the cemetery received 50,000 bodies in a period of five weeks. All of this was endured until the weight of the bodies broke the wall of a cave of an adjoining residence and stocks of wine began turning to vinegar because of the putrid air.

I always find this amusing when reading French history. The people accept incredible suffering and hardship for over a thousand years, but when the wine starts turning bad, they draw the line, raz de bol, enough, something must be done.

In 1876 the city started moving the bones to Tombe-Issoire. If the bones of Issoire were ever in this quarry, they will never be found. The remains of six million Parisians have been poured on top of him. It took two years to move the first two million corpses from the Saints-Innocents Cemetery. The other four million came from the other cemeteries of Paris and include such illustrious names as Fouquet, Colbert, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre, Lavoisier, Charles Perrault, the bodies of persons executed between 1792 et 1794 at the Caroussel or place de la Concorde as well as Charlotte Corday, Jean-Baptiste Lully, François Rabelais, François Mansart, the man behind the iron mask, Racine, Blaise Pascal, Marat, and Montesquieu.

In leaving this illustrious company, I climb another spiral staircase for the sixty feet that I formally descended. I exit to the light of day on a street far from where I started. I have no idea where I am but it doesn't matter because I remember the aphorism "no matter where you go, there you are."

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September 25, 2002 - Suburbs of Paris
September 18, 2002 - Saint James

September 11, 2002 - Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle

July 10, 2002 - Flintstones, meet the Flintstones

July 3, 2002 - Bugs

June 26, 2002 - Summer

June 19, 2002 - French Property News

June 5, 2002 - Emmanuel de Broglie

April 24, 2002 - Election Day in Saint Rimay

April 17, 2002 -Surprise Review

April 3, 2002 - Spring in Lavardin
March 20, 2002 - Guest Columnist /Furman Magazine/ John Roberts
March 13, 2002 - Tête de Veau
March 6, 2002 - Table Etiquette
February 27, 2002 - A Country Boy Can Survive
February 20, 2002 - Driving in France
February 13, 2002 - The Circus
February 6, 2002 - History of France
January 30, 2002 - THE BEST I EVER HAD
January 23, 2002 - Miranda This
January 16, 2002 - Charlotte Observer Interview
January 9, 2002 - Walnut Wine
January 2, 2002 - Sloe Gin
December 26, 2001 - Winter Solstice
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2001
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000



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