TRAVEL: Dead Romantic; George Dobell Treats His Girlfriend to a Trip to a Cemetery in Paris

The Birmingham Post (England), April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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TRAVEL: Dead Romantic; George Dobell Treats His Girlfriend to a Trip to a Cemetery in Paris


Byline: George Dobell

Just like the dents on my car, it's all my girlfriend's fault.

Many years ago, in an inebriated and uncharacteristically romantic moment, I made a rash promise to take her to Paris at least once every year. She's insisted on me honouring it.

So, several dozen or so trips to Paris later, we've been up the Eiffel Tower' we've admired the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay' we've drunk so much coffee that we've developed irregular heartbeats.

So what next?

Some of the real gems of the city are sometimes overlooked and the darker history of Paris is well worth exploring.

I thought I may be pushing my luck by suggesting a tour of the city's sewage system - fascinating by all accounts - so settled with an exploration of Paris's dead.

First on the agenda was a visit to the city's catacombs. The story of Paris's catacombs dates back more than 2,000 years. The Romans, having defeated the Parisii (the indigenous tribe from which the city takes its name), quarried stone from the area to gather the building blocks of their new settlement, resulting in a warren of caves far underground.

By 1780, the city's infrastructure was unable to cope with the vast growth in population. Cemeteries in the middle of Pairs were grossly overcrowded.

The ground level of churchyards had risen many feet above streets and disease spread from corpses was an increasing problem.

The authorities made the ingenious decision that the caves would be utilised to dispose of their dead. The dead of four centuries were exhumed and transported to Denfert- Rochereau in an early morning horse and cart procession that took four years and accounted for around three million corpses. More were added later, about six million in all.

Descending a steep, spiral staircase, one comes across an uncompromising sign in Latin, that would perhaps, be a suitable greeting for those visiting Villa Park: "Stop! This is the empire of the dead."

Beyond lie the narrow passages that snake under Paris and contain the bodies of the city's forefathers.

Unsurprisingly, given the manner of the transportation, the bodies are not intact. There was no attempt to retain individual records, though graveyards were grouped together.

The good and bad, the rich and poor, the young and old were simply stacked in piles depending on how they fitted together, much in the manner of a dry stone wall.

Among those supposedly laid to rest here are Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, three of the key figures in the French Revolution.

At first sight it is unsettling to see so may bodies. Not disturbing exactly, just incongruous. There have been attempts, albeit fairly perfunctory, to honour the dead in some way. An altar stands at the entrance and some bones have also been arranged into the shape of crucifixes or even hearts.

Various signs proclaim trite truisms: "If you have ever seen a man die, remember that one day that fate awaits you," was my particularly cheerful favourite. There aren't many belly laughs in the catacombs.

"Happy is he who always has the hour of his death before his eyes and is ready to die every day" another states, though I can't think of anyone more miserable than a man who always has the hour of death in his eyes. More reassuring - for those of us with crippling Barclaycard bills anyway - is this: "Upon death, you leave everything."

It is, supposedly, forbidden to take photographs and the whole area has been consecrated. But there is little respect shown to the dead. The man in front of me on the tour was frisked as he left and a skull and thighbone taken from inside his coat. Just what he intended to do with them remained a mystery.

Although lamps light the tunnels every 50 feet or so there is still an oppressive atmosphere. At one stage I inadvertently let out a gasp - OK, maybe a bit of a scream - when a drip of water found its way down my neck.

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