Revealing the Buried Treasures of Paris

Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England), April 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

Revealing the Buried Treasures of Paris


Byline: By George Dobbel

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, and we've drunk so much coffee we've developed irregular heartbeats. So what next?

Some of the gems of the city are sometimes overlooked and the darker history of Paris is 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, was a visit to the city's catacombs. Paris's date back 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 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 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: "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, bodies are not intact. There was no attempt to retain individual records, although graveyards were grouped together.

The good and bad, the rich and poor, the young and old were 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 key figures in the French Revolution.

At first sight it is unsettling to see so many 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 here.

"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. …

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