What I saw was amazing, even though I had been prepared for it by
seeing many photographs. The corridor – and a mile of corridor beyond –
was just filled with bones. They were stacked, five feet high, on
either side of the walkway. There were no complete skeletons, and
instead the bones were organized so as to be aesthetically pleasing.
Most of what you could see were femurs, all stacked one upon another
like wood in a cord. Skulls were dotted throughout, as though placed by
some skeletal Bedazzler. They formed lines of definition in the walls
of bone, they formed patterns and images -a doorway, a cross.




The sheer number of the bones were simply overwhelming. In some spots
they were stacked as shallow as two feet deep; in others they seemed to
be stacked ten or more feet. Some areas of bone stretched away from the
main tunnels. I knew from research that only this section was arranged
so precisely; the rest of the Catacombs were a jumble of bones. I had
read about modern cave explorers making their way through those
tunnels, literally scrambling across a shifting mountain of skeletons
to do so.




There is no identity for the dead in the Catacombs of Paris. There are
no name plaques or grave markers; instead there are tablets saying from
which cemetery each particular skeletal section came. And since the
bones were mixed and matched there was no coherence for the dead
either; your femur could be far away from your skull, and I don’t think
I saw any pelvises at all. On a less metaphysical level there is no
class in the Catacombs; the remains of the famous, including Marie
Antoinette, are interred here just as anonymously as those of the
lowliest pauper tossed unceremoniously in Les Innocents’ death pits. In
fact her skull and his could very well be sitting side by side,
touching at the temple for the last three centuries.




I don’t know what human bones are really supposed to feel like; these
felt like stone. I had to reach out and touch them, and as there’s no
barrier between you and the remains, I imagine I’m not the first punter
to put his grubby mitts all over somebody’s ulna. I was especially
drawn to the skulls and their texture; some of the skulls were more or
less complete while others were cracked and smashed. I saw a couple of
skulls with holes in them; were these men who had been shot in the
head, or women who had been the victims of trepanning? Or were the
holes simply the marks left behind by three hundred years of vandals? I
did see a skull with graffiti written across its forehead. Strangely,
that didn’t feel disrespectful. Maybe it was the anonymity of the
skull’s original user, or maybe it was the intriguing understanding of
death that you slowly come to as you walk through these corridors;
certainly this graffiti was more tastelessly placed than the massive
wall of graffiti that lies just beyond the exit of the Catacombs, but I
feel like the intent is the same – it’s a way of personally and
momentarily beating death. It isn’t the skull being vandalized, it’s
mortality. It’s the assertion of present life when outnumbered by
historical death.






If honesty is called for here, I have to say I’m afraid of dying.
Terrified of it. And I don’t know what scares me more – the Roman
Catholic upbringing that keeps a small bit of Hell fired up in the back
of my guilt-ridden mind or the more existential terror of my
agnostic/atheist brain that tells me when I die that’s it. No Heaven,
no Hell, no nothing. No more Devin. That I end when this body gives up,
that the flame which makes me me, that makes me unique and that has
grown and changed and learned and loved and lost over the decades of my
life will be simply snuffed out, not transferred anywhere else. I’m
pretty certain that when I die that is all – I won’t know anything more
and I won’t go anywhere else, and that scares the shit out of me. But
standing down there, in the cold and the wet amidst the remains of so
many who had gone before me, it wasn’t quite as scary.




As a society we do everything we can to keep death away. We keep it
away not only literally with advances in medicine and technology, we
keep it away mentally by packing the sick away and separating dying
from the reality of life. Anyone who becomes interested in death is
labeled as a morbid freak. The reality is that there are only two
experiences all human beings are guaranteed to have, birth and death,
and being interested in either of them couldn’t be any less sick.
What’s sick, and what makes us sick as a culture and unable to deal
with a natural aspect of our lives, is the way that we kick death out
of our homes whenever possible. We don’t keep death and the dying at
arm’s length because of respect or dignity, we do it because of fear.
And the more we keep death away, the more we fear it.




In the Catacombs death isn’t just the norm, it’s beautiful. The rows of
bones are almost breathtakingly gorgeous, and the bones themselves are
elegant and lovely, wonderful pieces of design in their own right. And
after a while they lose the power of horror and just become pieces of
art. That was the point when I finally summoned up the courage to touch
them, when they had stopped being something that belonged in the props
department of a horror movie and became something lovely and real. And
there’s something endlessly respectful about taking these bones and
arranging them so delicately; these people no longer exist, their souls
are not in some other world or pleasure or of torment. They’re gone,
and these bones are the only things left of them, and those final
remains have been put to a better purpose than being hidden away in the
ground somewhere.





And the fact that I was standing there, surrounded by these mortal remains, simply hammered home the fact that these bones are inside of me, and one day they will be all that is left of me. When that day comes all I’ll be good for is decoration, and there’s no hereafter to worry about. What I have to worry about is the herenow. Standing in the Catacombs reminds you that taking the couple of extra days and spending the couple of extra hundred dollars to go to Paris on a whim is always the right choice, because now is all you have. I won’t be able to look at the grandeur of the Louvre or marvel at the statuary of Notre Dame Cathedral from my cloud in Heaven; I have to enjoy these things now. Life is for the living, and once your life is over, you’re just another skull in the pile.



Even as I had my philosophical and theological musings, the realities
of the material world kept tugging at me. There had been a sign that
said no flash photography, but the other tourists in front of me (by
now I had encountered a melange of a couple of groups) were all using
their flashes. One woman was using a flash that strobed and which
seemed always on the verge of sending me into a seizure. My initial
photos had been coming out exceptionally poorly, so I took the lead of
these others and turned on the flash. I don’t know if I’m responsible
for the degradation of these bones at all; if so, they have millions
more, right?





Beyond blinding flashes of light, the other physical realities were
those of my surroundings – the ceilings kept getting low, and I kept
getting splattered with droplets of cold roof sweat – and my
companions. I had fallen in amidst a group of French tourists, and they
reinforced what I had learned while jammed on the un-air conditioned
Metro earlier – like the stereotype says, the French do smell. These
people happened to smell like garlic slathered dog shit, and that was
in combination with the musty, stale and humid air of the crypt. The
stench was, on occasion, gag-inducing.






Finally the ossuary ended. There were some more tunnels, slowly leading
up. The path passed through a few more chambers (including the one
where a wall was emblazoned with scratched in graffiti, almost all of
it names, all of it defying mortality where it lived (so to speak)),
and then came to another staircase leading up. This one was 80 some-odd
steps, and again was tight and winding. This time I couldn’t see two
steps ahead of me, and that meant I never knew quite where I was in the
trip up. There had been a sign outside that warned the Catacombs were
not for those with heart weakness, and I could see why. By the time I
got to the top – where there was a defibrillator waiting! – I was out
of breath.




But when I breathed in the air tasted sweet. I had heard that
expression a million times and had written it off as a cliche detailing
a state of mind, not an actual olfactory concept, but it turns out that
the air can taste sweet. I breathed in deeply, enjoying the freshness
of the air of Paris, air that tasted so great in my nostrils and
replaced the musky crypt oxygen in my lungs. The exit to the Catacombs
is just as low-key as the entrance; you come out of a barely noticeable
little stone building on a quiet little side street. There is no gift
shop, nowhere to buy skull magnets or ossuary postcards. There are also
no signs telling you where the hell you are; the next day I walked by
this street and spent ten minutes just watching tourists – many of them
American – come out of the Catacombs and be baffled as to where they
were and where they had to go.



I turned towards the big street at the end of the block, figuring I
could get my bearings there. It turns out that street was the Rue
LeClerc, the street on which my hotel was located. I hadn’t just chosen
a hotel near the Catacombs, I had chosen one built right on top of
them.



It was a beautiful summer day in Paris, the most beautiful city I have
ever seen. I walked up the Rue LeClerc, the bones beneath my feet on my
mind the whole time. Later, in the Metro, I would wonder what tunnels
lay just behind the subway walls. But that would be the end of my death
tourism; a bad bit of decision-making would keep me from the world
famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and I would have to spend the rest of my
trip to Paris simply luxuriating in and falling in love with the
vibrant life of the city. But I don’t think my catacomb days are done:
I’m really excited to finally get to Rome and see some of those
catacombs, which date back thousands of years.



As far as I know there are no catacombs to tour in America. We just
don’t deal with death that way. And I don’t know that I would want to
see an American catacombs; there would be a gaudy gift shop at the
exit, and maybe a soft drink stand halfway through. The floors of the
Paris Catacombs were slippery because of condensation and the thinning
of the gravel at the end of the day; an American catacomb would have
covered walkways, and the bones would be behind glass. I would never be
able to reach out and touch the skull of someone who had died three or
four – or more – hundred years ago. The fear of lawsuits and the cost
of preservation would outweigh the simplicity and the immediacy of the
experience. But most of all it’s hard to imagine Americans, with their
continued superstitious attachment to the remains of the dead, allowing
bones to be stacked and arranged in works of beauty and grace. There is
no beauty and grace in American death, only pain and horror. That makes
me sad.