Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Paris’ Underground Catacombs

Author: Niko Simmons

The Catacombs of Paris are an underground cemetery located in Paris, France. The catacombs contain the remains of over six million people. Skulls and bones are aligned along the walls of the underground tunnel as it is a tourist attraction to the public.
            The catacombs for the dead were built in the late 1700’s from various cemeteries around Paris. The Cemetery of the Innocents, now the Great Central Market, was the first cemetery evacuated into the catacombs. People protested that this cemetery constituted a public health danger. The soil of the cemetery of the Innocents was said to be “flesh-eating.” It wasn’t until 1785 authorities demolished the cemetery and removed the contents to an old stone quarry in Paris. This was an underground system of tunnels and passages. The transferring of skeletons from other cemeteries took around 15 months, along with the bodies that were demolished during the French Revolution.
            The presence of increased humidity and accelerated decay on the bones would most likely dissatisfy some visitors. However, the remains present themselves as part of a vast coral reef. They are a slow accretion of minerals in a tideless sea of time. Many of these bones have been studied for leprosy, a disease in which causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. After being observed, none had any signs of Leprosy.
The catacombs may seem as a site of disregard and desecration, but it was never intended as such. Almost 200,000 people a year come to see the view of the underworld and grasp an idea of mortality in the catacombs. The entrance into the statured cemetery begins with a spiral stairway which consists of 130 steps. After reaching the level of tunnels and walking through long passages, there is a giant iron door detailed with an inscription. Only by light can it be seen and it says, “Arrềte! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” It means ‘Halt! This is the empire of the dead.’ On the other side are the remains of the six million dead. 
A boy having fun with creative lighting in the catacombs
The catacombs have been the site of celebrated activities. In April 1897, a secret concert was held for over hundreds of scholars, artists, writers, and members of the Parisian government. This was the first of many festivities in the underground graveyard. Every first week in December, students from Ecole de Mines, a prestigious engineering school in France, are given a key to the catacombs and they are allowed to throw a party. Their only rule is to clean up afterwards.
The catacombs may seem as if it is a haunted chamber filled with human remains but it’s a great tourist attraction for the city of Paris. There is a meaning behind why people would want to come visit the remains of those they have never met but yet, find some kind of amusement from doing so.      

Works Cited:
Alvarez, Stephen. “Under Paris.” Photograph. National Geographic Magazine. February 2011. Web. 22 October 2012
“Catacombs.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Credo Reference. Web. 15 October 2012
“The Catacombs of Paris.” New York Times (1857-1922): 18 November 1857. Web. 11 October 2012
Gup, Ted. “Empire of the Dead.” Smithsonian. April 2000: 106 Gale World History In Context. Web. 13 October 2012
Jopling, W.H. Christenen, V. Moller. “An Examination of the Skulls in the Catacombs of Paris.” Medical History. 8 April 1964: 187-188. Web. 11 October 2012
Russell, Kenneth. “Skulls of the Dead- Paris Catacombs” Photograph. National Geographic Magazine. 1996-2012. Web. 22 October 2012
Shea, Neil. “Paris Catacombs.” National Geographic Magazine. February 2011. Web. 15 October 2012

Links for Further Research:

History of the Catacombs of Paris
Gives general information on the catacombs

Catacombs of Paris and Rome
Compares and contrasts the two underground cemeteries
Loving Life In Paris’ Empire of the Dead
Some ways of how people enjoy the “underground” lifestyle


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