“STOP. YOU ARE ENTERING THE EMPIRE OF DEATH.” It says outside the entrance of the Catacombs. Well, at least that’s what I’m told – everything is in French, and I’d believe anything the Parisians tell me.
The moment I cross the threshold, it’s as if I interrupted a party – a 200-year-old party – where all eyes are on me – all 6 million pairs of them. Femurs are neatly stacked along the walls of the narrow tunnel, with two rows of deteriorating skulls lined at my hip and eye level. The wall stacks well above my height, with a piles of broken, misshapen bones thrown onto the top – from neatly curated to forgotten remnants. I make sure to not touch the browning relics. My eyes are drawn to the perfectly lined skulls that jut out of the wall. If only death were as dignified as this. And yet the crumbling faces of what used to be are so fragile. I try to take a photo of one side of the wall, but I’m too close. I inch back and lean against the wall behind me. I take the photo. I turn my head and see a skull, with half its face eaten off, 5cm from my nose. OH SHIT THAT’S NOT A WALL. My entire body flinches away from the barricade, and I almost fall onto the other bone-lined wall. Great. They say don’t touch, and you fucking lean your back against it. It feels like I’m drenched in the souls of these dead bodies. I shiver. Well, I might as well see what a 200-year-old bone feels like. I touch the curve at the end of a random person’s femur. Gaaahh! SORRY, I internally apologize. It’s cold. Smooth. Empty. I look up to barren eyes reminding me of the rules as if it were guarding its other bones. Okayyy, moving on. My eyes follow the line of skulls as if it were the glow-in-the-dark airplane safety lines that lead you to the exit. The skulls lead me to a bend in the path. Inhale. Exhale. Eyes forward. Walk.
I focus on the end of this straight tunnel, wondering where everybody is. I am alone. The further I go into the tunnel, the less I remember the beginning. I am trapped under the ground, the metro, the sewage system, the fossils. I have nobody to rely on but the lonely lights that dimly encourage me to keep on inching forward. All I can hear is the eerie music playing in my audio guide as the voice tells me dates I can’t imagine, names I can’t pronounce, and stories I won’t remember. Accompanying this is the crunching of the pebbles beneath my feet – which seem to get louder and louder, I might add. Gone is the smooth pavement. I’m transported to 1780 – pebbled floor, stone walls, and a low ass ceiling. Just keep walking forward, I tell myself. But the bones are getting closer and closer, the ceiling getting lower and lower, my steps seem to get smaller and smaller.
Time stops. The lights flicker. I don’t dare blink and lose a second of light, of security. I am going to die in here. Crunch. I keep walking. Water drips from the ceiling. It forms a puddle. Oh god, how deep underground am I? Crunch. Drip. What if water starts filling this tunnel? Crunch. Drip. Drip. Drip. Where the fuck is everybody?! Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Drip. Drip. WHY ARE ALL THESE SKULLS LOOKING AT ME??
I stop. I enter a breathing space, a room that’s cut out of a scene from the Flintstones (if they lived in a cave and used the dead bodies of their enemies as furniture). There is a notch in the wall with of a simple bench made out of stone. I step away from the empty-eyed heads. I feel less ogled at. Breathe. I step out of my haven to take a photo of a collection of skulls shaped like a giant barrel – yes, a barrel. I do this with my right hand as the voice in my left hand tells me that a party was once held in this space. No fucking way. So a party really was held in here. I smile. Inhale. Exhale. Eyes forward. I see stairs. I keep walking.
Climbing up a spiral staircase, I remember what it felt like coming down into this ossuary – as if I were drilling myself into a hole with every step I took. Climbing up, all I see is me surpassing all these layers of greening stone bricks. I’m beating them to the top. I powerwalk as gracefully as one can out of there and am hit with blinding light and wind. Wind. Yes. I am transported into another part of town. In the window of the Catacombs gift shop across the street is a t-shirt that reads,
“KEEP CALM AND REMEMBER YOU WILL DIE.”