Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
And come celebrate Halloween with me as I drag you down, into the darkness for a horrifying tour of The Realm of Death–the famed Catacombs of Paris, considered the world’s largest grave, which I visited on a recent trip to France.
For those of you who may not know, an extensive network of old tunnels lies beneath the City of Lights, part of which houses a massive ossuary that holds millions and millions of ancient bones.
Which is what found me lining up with my wife on a drizzly morning last spring, waiting outside of a museum for the catacomb tours to begin. As Parisians descended down into the Metro station across the way to begin their mundane workday, I was preparing to descend much deeper to experience a fascinating and grisly part of the city’s history.
Once inside the museum, I skipped the initial exhibits and made a beeline for the spiral stone staircase that corkscrews more than 20 meters into the ground—about six-stories straight down.
As I negotiated the timeworn steps I imagined what it must have been like, centuries ago for the workers who wound the same path, relinquishing the bones of their ancestors to the bowels of the earth.
But instead of thrusting me into a hideous reminder of my own mortality, the stairs ended in an unremarkable, narrow corridor of smoothly mortared stone—a section of the underground that actually predates the catacombs.
Since Roman times, miners quarried the limestone around Paris to build the city. As the city got bigger, a 200-mile maze of mineshafts and tunnels grew underneath. Eventually the tunnels began to undermine the city streets, leading to deadly building collapses. So in the 1770s the government began inspecting and mapping the haphazard subterranean network.
I was now in a section of those old quarries. And after a few turns on the dirt floor, the naked stone above grew more slanted and treacherous, the corridor rougher and more crooked, until it finally opened up into a chamber that bore spectacular witness to this mining legacy. Carved into one of the rock walls was a model of France’s Port-Mahon and its fortress, created by a former quarry inspector. It was a wonderful piece of artistry and nothing like what I was expecting to see. Nearby, another spiral staircase led down into a spring that tired quarry workers had once used as a footbath.
Beyond this area, I passed beneath a series of soaring stone arches like something out of Moria. It was so amazing that it was easy to forget that I was traipsing towards a giant crypt. But then the ceilings began to close in again and I turned a corner to find a doorway bearing this eerie inscription:
“Halt. This is the Realm of Death.”
I may have found the words more arresting were they written in English instead of French, but I felt their true spirit as I entered the land of the dead.
On my immediate left was a row of skulls, eyeless sentinels whose accusing gazes ushered me into the subterranean nightmare. They were embedded into countless rows of femurs packed neatly from floor to ceiling as far as the feeble light would permit me to see. It’s a spectacle you can’t truly comprehend until you see it for yourself. But it’s still nowhere near as gruesome as the circumstances that led to its construction.
Throughout the centuries of growth that created the network of mines, Paris’ cemeteries were growing as well. The largest, called The Holy Innocents, was next to the city’s largest market and was so overcrowded with the dead that people complained about the stench of rotting corpses.
Decomposing bodies ripe with disease and pestilence—including the bubonic plague—were spreading illness and death. And this went on for centuries. By the late 18th Century, the cemetery had gotten so full that it made a mound over six feet tall and held something like 2 million bodies going all the way back to the Middle Ages.
Then came the rains of 1780. The spring of that year proved so wet that one of the walls of Holy Innocents collapsed, spilling bodies everywhere. By then people had had enough, and thus were the catacombs created. In 1786 they started exhuming the cemetery and moving corpses into the old, abandoned mines. The rest of the cemeteries in Paris shortly followed and soon the catacombs became the final resting place of more than six million bodies.
And here I was, centuries later, come to join them. But here’s the thing: despite the initial shock, the ossuary goes quickly from creepy to fascinating. It’s not just a haphazard pile of bones. Those long-ago crypt keepers packed arm and leg bones into a dense strata that became the blank canvas on which they transformed death into art.
Creative bone tableaus are everywhere. There are skulls arranged in the shape of a heart; a skull rainbow arches over a stone cross, supported by some jauntily-placed femurs; other skulls decoratively frame stone tablets inscribed with names and dates and even darkly humorous quips. Suddenly this place of horror becomes a source of unexpected wonder. And I wandered amidst these elaborate bone displays feeling pure joy at the craftsmanship on display.
Individual sarcophagi are scattered here and there. And one huge chamber houses the Crypt of the Sepulchral Lamp, which is an ancient stone pedestal and basin flanked by large stone obelisks and surrounded by curving bone walls.
The self-guided tour finally ends in a room with a massive drum-shaped pillar of bones; and by this point the rows of skulls staring out at you from its circumference seem like old friends bidding you a cheery adieu.
It’s certainly not the reaction you’d expect after walking more than a mile through a bone repository. And it probably explains why I couldn’t find any spooky ghost lore or horrific tales about the catacombs. They’re just too damn cool, and ironically inspiring. Instead of fleeing aboveground in a clammy panic, I left with a memory as fond as that of seeing the Venus di Milo in the Louvre, or watching the Eifel Tower sparkle at midnight.
If there were any revenants amongst the six million corpses, they tricked me into having one hell of a treat.
This episode of DeFlip Side features music from The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to Angels and Demons composed by Hans Zimmer, and selected pieces from “Pictures at an Exhibition” composed by Modest Mussorgsky.