Some folks might find the purpled prose of Edgar Allan Poe a trifle overwrought by today's standards, but he's experienced a mysterious resurgence of popularity in the last couple of years. He's been the subject of two historical literary mysteries (Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow, Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye) and historic "true crime" tomes like The Beautiful Cigar Girl, about a famed NYC murder case in the 19th century that captivated Poe and inspired his short story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget." I've read all three, and quite enjoyed them, but there's really no substitute for the original short stories by the master himself. Serendipitously, I found myself re-reading "The Cask of Amontillado" (written in 1846) after the Spousal Unit and I returned from our trip to Paris last week. (He was attending a cosmology workshop, I tagged along as a spousal adjunct. Because it was Paris, people! No way I'm staying home with the cat!)
Anyway, in the big climactic scene of "Cask of Amontillado," the protagonist, Montressor, walls up his enemy inside a cavity hidden deep within some catacombs. Poe describes them as being "lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris." You can see where I'm going with this. I was in Paris. There are catacombs in Paris. I'm a Poe fan. How long do you think it took for me to ferret out the entrance to the catacombs from our little boutique hotel in the Latin Quarter? (Our hotel boasted the Smallest Elevator in France. Seriously, I thought at first we'd been directed to the dumbwaiter by mistake.)
Well, I mapped it out on the plane ride over, but waited until the Spousal Unit could join me for the excursion itself -- last Friday, when his workshop was all but over. In the interim, I killed some time visiting the Picasso Museum; Notre Dame Cathedral; the Pantheon (where all the famous French atheists are buried, so really, one must pay one's respects); the Museum de Cluny du Moyen Age (which features The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, as well as being built around the ruins of a Roman bath); wandering around the banks of the Seine (it's a most walkable city); and getting all turned around in the Dutch masters wing of the Louvre before finally locating an exit. The catacombs were by far my favorite sight, and well worth the wait.
I've long been a fan of Parisian history, particularly anything to do with the French Revolution and the era of The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers (as in the novesl by Dumas, not the chocolate bar), and the film version from the 1970s starring Michael York as D'Artagnan was awesome. But I'd never really thought about the vast network (stretching some 300 kilometers) of subterranean tunnels and caverns under its quaint streets strewn with boutiques, cafes and boulangeries.
The catacombs are pretty much abandoned limestone mines, that limestone having been removed to build a goodly part of the city. Miners have been burrowing into the ground and creating tunnels since at least the 12th century, digging ramps and vertical well shafts as needed to reach the desired minerals and other deposits buried there -- not just limestone and clay, but also gypsum, the origin of plaster of paris. There were occasional surprises: in the 19th century, diggers uncovered the remains of a Roman-era clay mine. Less welcome surprises were the occasional collapses, the most major of which occurred in 1774 along the route de Fontainebleu. That tragedy led to the formation of a special division of architects to inspect, repair and otherwise maintain Underground Paris.
But what to do with the abandoned mines once their reserves had been depleted? It just so happens Paris had another problem -- overcrowding in its cemeteries -- that reached a crisis point in the late 17th century when the largest cemetery, Les Innocents, had to be condemned. Mortality rates were pretty high back then, after all. The last gravedigger there, Francois Pantrain, apparently buried 90,000 bodies in his 35-year tenure. We're talking centuries of bodies piling up in cemeteries all over the city, so many that the ground levels in many churchyards had risen a good 20-30 feet because of the added volume from all those human remains. It was a health hazard: improper burials, open mass graves, and all that decomposing organic matter leaking into the ground led to widespread disease. (The Spousal Unit swears there was a notorious flood in which bodies were unearthed and flooded the city streets, but I couldn't find any record of this in my admittedly brief Google search.)
Clearly something had to be done, and a police lieutenant general hit upon the idea of storing the cemetery remains in the now-abandoned quarries, or catacombs. So the ground was duly consecrated and between 1786 and 1788, Les Innocents was slowly emptied of human remains. Bodies were moved at night in a strange ceremonial procession of tipcarts laden with corpses (discreetly covered by a black veil) accompanied by priests chanting the burial service en route. And hired laborers undertook the thankless task of organizing all those decaying bones for tidy storage. It had to have been tedious, unpleasant back-breaking work, but at least the laborers could indulge in some macabre whimsy while painstakingly stacking human femur bones -- separated occasionally by decorative "borders" or grinning skulls -- to build side walls in the vacant cavities that once held limestone and gypsum. There's a Jolly Roger design made of bones, and a heart pierced by an arrow.
It was an enormous undertaking, so perhaps the city planners can be forgiven for the cavalier manner in which the bones were deposited into their new home: no attempt at maintaining individual tombstones or properly cataloging specific remains. All the bones were just mixed and mingled, noblemen with paupers. (Death truly is the Great Equalizer; we all eventually meet the same unceremonious fate.) Okay, they tried to be somewhat respectful of the remains. Once all the bodies had been relocated, mass was celebrated to honor the now-anonymous dead at a specially constructed altar bearing a rather dour inscription: "Man, like a flower of the field, flourishes while the breath is in him, and does not remain nor know longer his own place. In peaceful sleep rest great people." There are lots of plaques with inscriptions throughout the ossuary, in several different languages, all pretty much sounding the same basic theme: everything you think is so damned important in life amounts to nothing in the end, when everyone, great and small, is reduced to the same pile of dry bones. My personal favorite was a poetic medication that essentially said that life and all its trappings merely constitute le fleur ephemeral (the ephemeral flower). It sounded way cooler in French.
There's some interesting geophysics (avalanche dynamics, for example) and engineering to be found in the Paris catacombs. The constant risk of collapse led to the development of techniques to shore the walls up a bit by injecting concrete in them as reinforcement, and this also gave rise to a couple of impressive, bell-shaped galleries with curved "roofs" some 11 meters high. They're known as "bells of subsidence" (the most famous is the Cloche de Fontis). Abandoned quarries erode in a very specific manner, it seems: first the "ceiling" of a lower level tunnel collapses a bit, and since the just ground above now has little support, it too collapses into the quarry. This process continues over time, resulting in "walls" that are constantly reinforced with sprayed liquid concrete to prevent further collapse, until they almost reach street level.
Parisians certainly weren't the first to conceive of burying their dead in underground chambers. The Etruscans did it, too, along with many other European peoples. It's quite practical, actually, apart from the whole occasional caving-in thing. The Romans preferred cremation (at least early on), but the urns were stored in a columbarium. After 2 AD, the unburnt remains were stored in graves or sarcophagi. Gradually the Roman catacombs fell out of favor for funereal arrangements, in favor of traditional cemeteries. The rise of burial as a custom might be attributed in part to the spread of Christianity. When your religion espouses the bodily resurrection of the dead, you're a bit more reluctant to destroy the physical outer shell that remains after death.
The Roman catacombs were carved out of the soft rock typical of the terrain outside Rome's official city limits by fossors (excavators). These catacombs are probably famous as those of Paris: there's at least 40 known catacombs, usually named after saints or martyrs believed to be buried there, lost amid the vast network of galleries and passageways (ambulacra). Some of the catacombs are four stories deep. Graves (loculi) were carved out of the walls, often containing more than one body. Wealthier sorts usually opted for an arcosolium in which to bury their dead, a kind of curved niche enclosed under a carved marble slab, or cryptae -- chapels decorated with frescoes and sealed off. They're mostly abandoned these days, apparently: not only were the Roman catacombs ransacked by Vandals and various Goths during the sacking of Rome, and by the 10th century AD most of the relics had been moved to above-ground quarters.
Ransacking has a way of rendering such marvels of engineering and architecture to the footnotes of history -- at least temporarily. The Roman catacombs lay dormant and forgotten for a good 500 years until they were rediscovered around 1578. A man named Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them -- a kind of ballsy thing to do, considering their labyrinthine nature -- and compiled his vast accumulated knowledge into one big seminal volume, Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome), published in 1632. They've been studied and carefully preserved ever since, currently by the Salesians of Don Bosco, as agents of the papacy. That's what Wikipedia tells me, anyway.
Czechoslovakia boasts its own famous osteo-attraction, the Sedlec ossuary, in which workers of the past assembled the scattered bones into recognizable objects: a huge chandelier, for example, made up of each of the 206 different bones found in the human skeleton. That would be quite the conversation piece and Jen-Luc Piquant would totally have one in the Cyber-salon of her dreams. We share an appreciation for that kind of morbid playfulness exhibited not just in the Sedlec ossuary and the Paris catacombs, but also in the grotesque tableaux of preserved corpses that were the forte of Honore Fragonard. (We blogged about him previously here. Before there was Body Works, the museum exhibit -- now on display in Los Angeles -- there was Fragonard.)
Then there's the painted plaster skulls and skeletons, and preserved corpses on almost theatrical display in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, a tiny Baroque-style church in Palermo, Italy. Unlike the Paris catacombs, the Palermo skeletons still have bits of flesh clinging to the bones, and the monks charged with maintaining the place have garbed them in period clothing -- albeit clothing that is also engaged in the long, slow process of decay. Somewhere on the premises, it's even possible to view the colatoio (colander), where the "soft matter drained away from the fresh corpse through the stone slats, leaving the parts of the body which the dressers would be able to work with."
That last sentence is from this article ("The Museum of the Dead") by Robert Harbison in Cabinet Magazine (h/t: 3 Quarks Daily) describing his (rather negative) impressions of the Palermo corpses: he finds the arranged bodies strangely compelling, but also dismisses the spatial layout as "monotonous," and observes, "It seems a minimal space, stripped bare of all pretense that what lies ahead is anything but grim." Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but for all the macabre nature of the display, there's something as strangely beautiful and somberly meditative about the Palermo corpses (at least as far as one can tell from the astonishing photographs published in Cabinet Magazine) as there is about the Paris catacombs -- perhaps because they still retain some vestige of the human beings they once were. They are not (yet) stacks of anonymous bones.
I can only assume the Palermo corpses have been carefully preserved by both natural and artificial means, thereby prolonging the process of decomposition. Fellow forensics buffs will know that the first stage involves the production of vapors -- usually pretty foul-smelling and giving rise to bloat -- followed by the solid flesh gradually melting into an icky viscous liquid (putrefaction). Exposing a body to air will speed up this process (not to mention bring increased "insect activity" -- Grissom would heartily approve!), while buried bodies can decompose as much as eight times more slowly, depending on the composition of the soil and surrounding temperature. The final stage is dry decay (diagenesis), in which the bones, now stripped of all soft tissue, begin to dry out and deteriorate. It can take a very long time to complete this stage and reduce the bones to ashes. Basically, the protein-mineral bonds in the bonds weaken and organic protein starts leaching away.
The bones in the Paris catacombs are noticeably dry and brittle, clearly well on their way in the process of decay, although they won't be disappearing completely into ash any time soon. Today, the remains of some 6 million Parisian remains are housed in the Paris catacombs. Walking through the corridors is like getting a stark visual representation of just what 6 million bodies looks like (and, among other things, reinforces the horror of events like the systemic extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II). But there's nothing garish or exploitive about the catacombs. Instead, there's a kind of hushed reverence in their dimly lit passageways. Somehow the macabre flights of whimsy and dour plaques on the futility of life strike a perfect balance: the catacombs are respectful of human life and death, but not in a way that trades on glorifying (now long-forgotten) individuals; the focus is on the universality of death. Even men who were sworn enemies during the French Revolution find themselves sharing crypt space in the catacombs. There's a strange beauty in that. We are all, ultimately, just les fleurs ephemeral. And that's not necessarily a bad thing to be.