The Catacombs are actually old mining tunnels, some dating back to the Romans, that run underneath the city so calling them catacombs is incorrect since they were never meant for burial purposes. It would be better to refer to them as bone-warehouses. The tunnels run for some 300 km, only a small portion of which is open to the public, although there is an entire cast of urban explorers devoted to exploring the catacombs. The mining, mostly chalk, was stopped in the 1813 after a few incidents involving houses, and sometimes parts of streets, which had disappeared overnight, sucked 30 m deep underground. So what do you do with 300 km of empty tunnels? Why not stuff them with the bones of 5 or 6 million people?
As I walked in, I was greeted on either side by what at first appeared to be rows of cordwood. It took me a few seconds to realize that these were actually bones, stacked neatly and punctuated by the occasional skull whose black, empty sockets follow me as I walked by.
My first feeling was one of exhilaration and I couldn’t help but think of the old “bring out your dead” Monthy Python sketch. But after about ten minutes of walking and seeing the endless rows of bones, four to five feet high and six feet deep in some areas, another feeling set in – the most eerie feeling that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
As this feeling grew, I made a few realizations. One, that there are a hell (excuse the pun) of a lot of dead people in here. Two, that all looked the same. Men or women, white or black, handsome or ugly, smart or einsteiningly challenged, I couldn’t tell! And strangely, it didn’t matter. These were people once, like me, with dreams and hopes and love. People who paid taxes (or avoided to) and got up grumpy on Monday morning to go to work. Yes, people like me… It might as well be my bones there, and would anyone remember I even existed? This was my moment of Kenshō, my moment of realization. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, this was the message for me here, a message written in bones for the world to see.
So, If you have been putting things off in your life, waiting for the “right moment”, then this is a great place to visit. No other place will remind you quite so sharply that the clock is ticking for all of us and that your need to make the most of your time here. Because life after all, is only for the living…