When one thinks of Paris, the words, cheese, love, sex, and images of the Eiffel tower pour into their headspaces. What doesn’t initially pop to mind when it comes to Paris is the dark history that lies just beneath the Parisian veil are the catacombs. With thousands of bodies artistically placed due to the overflow of bodies in the eighteenth century, the French searched far and wide to find somewhere to put the no-longer living.
Police found underground tunnels to proceed with ‘bone transfer.’ Charles Axel Guillaumot was responsible for moving the remains to the underground tunnels. Bone transferring was done under the veil of the night to hinder offending any of the currently living. The bones of the bodies were taken down and put into ‘galleries.’
When the French Revolution came, it sparked even more significant burial issues. Following the revolution, smaller cemeteries around Paris had their bones taken from them. The site that was initially called the ‘Paris Municipal Ossuary’ began to take on mythical proportions and informally became known as ‘the catacombs,’ after the tunnels under the Ancient city of Rome.
Christine Henkel, a young woman, was visiting Paris and gained curiosity about the mysterious morbidity of what is presently known as the Catacombs. Henkel was visiting the city along with four other friends. The five-set out on a day that has resided with them every day to follow. The group was able to purchase their tickets ahead of time online. Henkel recommended doing the same as she recalled the line being absurdly long with a forecast of rain.
When looking into ticket purchasing, note that there are four different tickets you may buy, the cheapest being their newest virtual tour feature that costs from 3 to 5 Euros. The most expensive were the regular buy-ahead tickets. However, the best deal seemed to be the last-minute buy-ahead option that cost nearly halved the cost of the regular buy-in advance ticket price.
This experience is not for those who can’t go up many stairs. Visitors feel an immediate unease as they continue down the stairs in a cave that Henkel describes as ‘never-ending.’ However, you can make your experience as long as you’d like once you reach the cave. With no guides, groups are taken down bit by bit to allow for visitors to fully immerse themselves in the respectful history and seemingly morbid burial grounds. Henkel noted that endurance was not a necessity for this adventure. To further their experience, Henkel and her group of friends went down every small nook they could to fully immerse themselves in it. She noted that getting lost down there, although not impossible, is very unlikely due to blockages of pathways and signs directing visitors.
Part of the Catacombs that gets a lot of emphasis is The Ossuary, which many see when stumbling upon images of the Catacombs. According to a quarry backfill arrangement, the Ossuary consists of the bones that had previously been loosely piled and carefully organized in walls. Henkel described her time down there as “Majorly Creepy,” saying how she initially felt it was all for show, but when she went down into the Ossuary, “it hit me that it wasn’t all for show and replication, but it’s the real deal. I thought, oh, it’s like a museum or in a movie when everything is a prop. As soon as you get down there, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, these are real human bones, and they are everywhere and piled so high. Then I felt really sad that none of them could be buried properly and rest with their families. They were all piled on top of each other.” Henkels retrospection might be what the goal of having visitors in the Catacombs is, just like any other museum.
There are so many ‘adventures’ that last as long as the flash on your iPhone does in today’s age. When I spoke with Henkel, I asked if seeing images before her experience affected it. She quickly shot the notion down, explaining how different it is when fully immersed in a room of bones; she said you could even touch them if curiosity strikes you. She went on to say how it was almost shocking people could pay money to see all the derailed bodies cast together in such a way. She noted that photography was allowed during their time in the Catacombs. However, they were careful not to be disrespectful to the deceased.
Henkel, who was initially overwhelmed by the bones stacked on top of each other, described them as almost artistic, “…femurs remained together to form a pattern, as did the skulls with one on top of the other.” she admitted during her interview that, “Being surrounded by thousands of dead bodies makes you think about your own life, 1000%. It makes you reflect, and the experience stays with you even after the trip is over.”
The gratifying experience gifted Henkel and her friends with a forever memory and insight and a bit of retrospection. When researching the city, tourists who see the catacombs as the main attraction to Paris tend to think, ‘why not.’ That’s how it was with Henkel and her friends; It wasn’t at the top of their list of must-sees. Nevertheless, Henkel expressed appreciation as she reminisced, saying, “I am so happy we went.”