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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
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#62. I have walked through the underground catacombs of Paris.

And it’s the most indescribably creepy, screaming willy-inducing, surreal place on the planet. So, of course, I’ll describe this indescribable place. And I’ll get it all wrong. So read what’s coming, but know that you’ll have to visit it yourself to really get the idea. I’ll try to find some pictures to help, but you’ve gotta be there to really get the full effect.

First, here’s what I think I know about the catacombs before I look anything up:

Paris has been a city for many hundreds of years. People have been living, and therefore dying, there since the dawn of time, practically. Well, maybe not that long — I’m estimating, of course. But a long, long time, all right? So, they’re big into burying their dead, as I guess most cultures are. But after a while, there was really nowhere else to put them. Old bodies started washing up after heavy rains, and the contents of the oldest graveyards would shift and churn and generally make things very gross and nasty. Good for the dogs looking for something to chew on, I suppose, but generally bad for everyone else. Very bad.

So eventually — sometime in the 1700’s, maybe? — the Parisians decided that something had to be done. So they gathered up all the bones from the oldest, most at-risk graveyards, and moved them, one section at a time, into the catacombs. I don’t think the tunnels were built for the purpose; I think a lot of them were ancient passages built many centuries before, but I’m pretty iffy on that, I’m afraid. Anyway, these benevolent graverobbers took all the bones they could find, and arranged them — femurs, ribs, tibias, humeri, and skull after skull — in the alcoves lining the catacomb passages. These alcoves are large — maybe eight feet tall and just as wide, and ten feet deep or more. And into each of the dozens — maybe hundreds — of these alcoves, they piled bones in geometric patterns, decorating the piles with criss-crosses or strategically-placed grinning skulls. When they finished each, they mounted a plaque to list from which graveyard the bodies had come, and they moved on to the next one.

If I remember correctly, the estimated number of bodies represented there numbers in the millions. Not a lot of millions, but still, millions. Millions of bones from millions of bodies, arranged like art and garnished with millions of skulls. It’s truly a humbling, awe-inspiring, sacred place to see. And creepy. Spine-chillingly, did-that-thing-move, let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here, goddamned creepy. It’s sooo cool.

Okay, two more items in the ‘Charlie’s Revised History of the Parisian Catacombs‘ version, and then I’ll look up the real info, and tell you what I’ve got wrong. (I feel just like StatBoy. Whee!) Anyway, one other thing that I remembered is that the French Resistance used the catacombs as a base during World War II. The warrens and passages criss-cross everywhere underneath the city, and thus made for a good hiding spot in which to lay low between raids. Just the thought of spending a single night down there — much less weeks at a time, with unreliable light and the stench of fear and war all around — gives me the creeping willies. I guess it beat the hell out of being interrogated by the SS, but shit — what a couple of options!

And the other thing I remember is that I think that the original ‘Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here‘ sign is posted at the entrance to the catacombs. Or something similar, in French. The details are a little fuzzy after three years’ time, unfortunately.

Okay, let’s see which facts my memory has mangled, and get you nice folks some pictoral evidence. Let’s see…

Here are a couple of facts from WebMuseum, Paris: there are bones from an estimated five to six million people in the catacombs. (Hey, so I was on target. Score one for me!) Also, the ‘galleries’ average 2.3 meters in height. (What’d I say? Eight feet? That’s pretty close, too. I’m two for two!)

Let’s see what the WebMuseum ‘Catacombs of Paris’ area has in the way of pictures. Here’s a nice one of a typical gallery full of bones. And here’s a closeup of a skull. And another, with a pirate motif. Arrrr!

Okay, what else we got? Okay, Underground Paris has some good shit. It seems that the tunnels were originally quarries, where the Parisians mined the stone to build many of the buildings around the city. According to the site, they’ve been in continuous use since Roman times. (All of which sounds pretty familiar now. But I didn’t remember, so I’ll say I missed this one. Two to one, good guys.)

All right, here we go. Check out the Underground Paris page of ‘bone heaps’ near the catacomb entrance. And while you’re there, note that the catacombs were established in 1786 (got that one, though I wasn’t very specific), and that the depth of the alcoves is typically two to three meters (or metres, if you’re one of those people; in other words, six to nine feet or so. I said ten; I’m taking partial credit. It’s not like I was off by fifty percent or anything.)

Underground Paris also has a cool map and lots more pictures of the galleries. Check it out — it’s not quite as creepy as being there, but it does bring back some dank, haunting memories. Deep breath… deep breath. Okay, moving on.

Okay, so finally, here’s a bit of info from a site simply called The Catacombs of Paris: the sign at the entrance to the ossuaries says (in French): ‘Stop! This is the Empire of Death‘. (So I didn’t quite get that one right. And Dante wrote the original ‘Abandon all hope…’ line. You’d think I might have recalled that from freshman world literature class, eh? Still, I think I came out ahead. Not bad for a guy who has to write his name on his palm to remember it, eh?)

Well, that was fun, and entertaining, too, I hope. From what I’ve read, I suppose I can’t really say I’ve been to the ‘catacombs’; the small public grave area is known as the ‘ossuary’, while the catacombs proper snake under most of the rest of the city, with three hundred kilometers of tunnels in all. There’s a whole subculture in Paris comprised of adventurous sorts who roam these tunnels, exploring and playing and avoiding the catacomb cops. There’s even a cool Salon article detailing one man’s adventure with experienced ‘cataphiles’ showing him the subterranean ropes. It’s a pretty long piece, but hey, if you read this, you’re used to it. Check it out.

And while you’re at it, book a flight to Paris, and check things out yourself. Despite butchering some of the facts and details, I can easily say that the old boneyard was the single most unforgettable stop during my one and only weekend in Paris. I’ve never seen anything even remotely like it. So get over there and see it. And then wait three years, and write all about it. Let’s see how much you remember.

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