The Chambers of the Paris Catacombs

The Chambers of the Catacombs.

Catacombs, by definition, are morbid and mournful chambers for the dead. They are not burial places, for there is no dignity in death.

Catacombs are a city’s ossuary, a network of underground passageways filled with human bones, deposited and blessed with religious rites. Human-made, human-laid. 

Paris has several ossuaries, and one is open to the public—at 2 Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14tharrondissement. 

Candle-lit visits into the Paris Catacombs ended with the installation of electricity in 1983.

Reported to be the largest repository of bones, there are estimated to be six million human remains in many kilometres of tunnels. The initial transfer of human bones was the two million Parisians from the Cemetery of the Innocents from 1785-86. Eventually, other bones were transferred from other cemeteries and churches in Paris to their resting place in the Paris Catacombs. The last transfer of bones to the Catacombs was in 1933. 

There is no evidence that James Joyce visited the Catacombs, but his character Father Flynn did or at least knew of the ossuary. 

James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) is a collection of stories. The first story, called The Sisters is written in the first person. The narrator is a young, unnamed Irishman from Dublin, recalling his childhood friendship in 1895 with a Catholic priest, Father Flynn. Reverend James Flynn is dead at the age of sixty-five—after his third stroke. Not a figure in reality, Father Flynn, in the story, is representative of the Catholic Church. 

The character of Father Flynn, from the perspective of a very young boy, is remembered for his knowledge and his story-telling. 

‘He had studied in the Irish college in Rome and he had taught me to pronounce Latin properly. He had told me stories about the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had explained to me the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest.’

The Catacombs referred to in the passage from The Sisters is the Paris Catacombs. I ventured into the Paris Catacombs on 28 August 2018. Two kilometres of the Catacombs is available for viewing as a museum of tunnels. Descending 130 steps of the stairwell, the temperature dropped from a warm summer 26C to the constant underground temperature of 14C.

Narrow, damp, dank, the bricked tunnels are signed according to streets or galleries. A sign says: Vous êtes invité àne rien toucher, et àne pas fumer dans l’ossuaire—You are invited not to touch anything, and not to smoke in the ossuary. 

Apart from the necessary rules, there are touches of poignancy:

Ainsi tout passe sur la terre 

Esprit, beauté, grâces talent 

Telles une fleur éphémère 

Que renverse le moindre vent.

So, everything passes on earth

Spirit, beauty, talented graces 

Like an ephemeral flower 

That reverses the slightest wind.

There are no plaques to recognize individuals.  There are no ‘whole’ skeletons. There are, however, plaques that identify which cemetery the bones originated from. Devoid of individuality, nameless celebrities and paupers are entangled together, forever.

There is no chance of getting lost in the Paris Catacombs. It is well-signed and well-directed from entrance to exit. For me, there was no hint of claustrophobia, nor airlessness either. 

After forty-five minutes, the ‘tour’ is over, and the summer sun blinds.

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