La Ville de la Mort

Paris has many nicknames: Lutèce, the City of Light, the City of Love. These aren’t just for no reason, of course: A city named Lutetia was once situated where Paris currently stands. Paris was one of the first European cities to adopt streetlamps and was at the centre of the enlightenment. And Love? Well, the top of the Eiffel Tower isn’t what I would consider romantic, but apparently it wooed the person who was proposed to when I was up there, so as cliché as it is, there’s must be some truth to the charge. This city, much as it can be despised by the rest of France, has a vigorous soul and a certain joie de vivre. In contrast to this vibrant façade, a prominent feature of the city, an ironic force majeure no matter where you step, is death. It’s inescapable, yet often times invisible. And I’m not just discussing historical death, where once upon a time the boulevards and avenues were submerged in blood. I mean there’s literally corpses and human remains everywhere. Hardly anyone reacts to this absurdity – in fact, they even create tourist attractions out of them, complete with vendors parading their scandalous souvenirs to visitors! Now, I don’t want to pick on Paris. To be fair, there are plenty of cities across the globe who display cadavers for the morbidly curious to observe. And certainly, there is nothing wrong with finding fascination in the darker aspects of life. But Paris does this par excellence, which contrasts the image it attempts so firmly to fashion for itself. So, if it pleases you, let us depart on a voyage into the City of the Dead…

First, we’ll begin with an obvious locale: the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It’s the largest in Paris and the most visited in the world. Over one million people are interred here, their tombs casting a veritable silence across the hallowed grounds. It’s a relatively new cemetery, as most Parisian cemeteries are (more on that later). Regardless, the notable characters who are buried here are world-class, as are their sepulchres. That is, if you have any luck discovering their whereabouts. Père Lachaise is quite large – 44 hectares, the same size as the Vatican! – so you’ll never locate them without prior preparation. But even though I assumed I’d be fine since I had a map and marked all the locations, I had so much difficulty finding the graves I was searching for that I ended up passing twice as much time there as I had intended, getting disoriented in the labyrinth of compact graves, so close together it’s astonishing that the bodies haven’t transformed into an indiscernible mass of bones (That would be the destiny of others who had the misfortune of dying earlier – more on that later…). And people are still buried among these rolling hills of mossy mausoleums, decaying tombstones and disquieting silence. I’m not sure how they make the space, but it surely isn’t a pleasant affair…

In any case, I managed to locate some (but not all) on my wanted list. Some of the sites I had difficulty in locating were Jim Morrison, whose memorial, while covered in bright flowers, is nestled in the middle of an impenetrable forest of gravestones; the “Lovers” Héloise and Abélard, celebrated 12th Century scholars who were separated in life and reunited in death (i.e. their remains were reburied together in the 1800s); and Chopin, the legendary composer whose grave I would never have found if there weren’t music emanating from it. Fortunately, others were easier to discover, including Colette the novelist with her pink, bed-like grave; Oscar Wilde the writer, whose grave got kissed by so many women (who, if you remember, Mr. Wilde did not ‘indulge’) that there’s protective glass around it now; and Asturias the Guatemalan diplomat with his ornate obelisk. Another notable monument includes the statue of Victor Noir, a journalist who was murdered by a member of the monarchy in 1870. His statue depicts him lying on the ground, hat by his side, seconds after he was fatally shot. But the thing is…the bulge in his pants is massive, meaning he’s packing a lot of…personality. As a result, people rub it for good fortune and fertility (Yes, I couldn’t resist the urge and gave it a good ole rub too). Women also kiss his lips, touch his shoes and leave flowers in his hat for the same reason. So often have people been pecking Victor’s lips, tickling his toes and massaging his member that they’re actually starting to erode – the rest of him is green, but these bits glisten in the morning sun! On a less humorous note, there’s also the “Aux Morts” wall, where 147 people, including children, were massacred during the fallout of the Paris Commune in 1871. The Commune was the seizure of power after the collapse of the Empire from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) which, although not explicitly socialist, served as a source of inspiration for Marxist revolutionaries in the decades to follow.

A cemetery is a very obvious location to find the dead, but not everyone in France finds themselves in one once they die. Take, for example, the magnificent Panthéon. It was once a church, but then the 1789 revolution deconsecrated it and made it a purely secular yet patriotic shrine. But then it was reconsecrated. Then re-deconsecrated. Given the absolute turmoil of 19th Century France, it naturally flip-flopped between religious and secular dedication until finally it became the best of both worlds: the temple of France, where the non-religious nature of the nation is venerated in bizarrely sacred overtones. Regardless, beginning in the late 1800s, several of France’s luminaries have been transferred here, including philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau (whose ideas are central to the ideology of the French Revolution); scientists Marie and Pierre Curie (whose notebooks are still radioactive!); the educator Louis Braille (whose grave does not have braille on it, much to my disappointment); revolutionaries Mirabeau and Jean-Paul Marat (you know, the guy that was murdered in a bathtub); writers Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo (the guy who wrote Les Misérables and indirectly responsible for all those annoying theatre kids in high school); politicians like Léon Gambetta (at least, his heart is there) and Jean Moulin (a key player in the Resistance during WWII), as well as dozens of other notable figures – military leaders, cardinals, entrepreneurs – that define the essence of the French nation.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb. Note: The Corsican was not short; He measured 5’2″ in French inches, which are longer than English ones. But the English hated him and called him short and now everyone thinks that’s true.

But there’s one man notably absent from the Panthéon line-up, despite the indelible mark he left upon course of French history. He’s located within Les Invalides, a military museum that used to be a military hospital (and is now a military necropolis). His grandiose sarcophagus lays within a deep pit in the centre of a domed hall. You can only gaze from above or you wander downstairs to look at him from below, but you’re never on the same level as him, guarded as he is by angels who watch over and guard him from harm. Who is this mystery man? Why, the General who took over all of Europe at one point, Napoleon Bonaparte (who also said, “screw the French Revolution, I’ve got a better idea” and became Emperor of France!). Also, although documents refer to his ‘ashes’, he was never cremated – the little soldier who could is crammed inside that box. I still can’t believe that and part of me really wanted to jump into the tomb to and open the box, just to have a check. I guess I’ll just have to trust them on that one. There is another famous soldier honoured by France, buried underneath the Arc de Triomphe, but we have no idea who he is – he is the Unknown Soldier of France, a tribute to all those killed in war fighting for France who names may have been forgotten, but never their sacrifice. He fought in WWI and was interred there in 1920. As frustrating as that is to someone who has an unquenchable thirst to find out all I can about everything I come across (I was the child with too many questions, who recently graduated to adult with too many questions), if we were to unravel the mystery of this soldier’s identity, then he would no longer represent the unknown casualties of war. Ironically, his anonymity is the sole reason we know about him at him. Unknown in life, revered in death.

Here lies a French soldier who died for country: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.

Travel south-east from the Arc, assuming you can survive that nightmare of a roundabout (it’s hilarious watching tourists trying to cross the road when you’re supposed to go underground!), and you’ll end up in Place de la Concorde, the plaza where crowds squelched through rivers of blood to watch counter-revolutionaries die. See, this was the place where many of the infamous executions of the French Revolution took place via guillotine – over 1,100, half the total in Paris alone. That’s a lot of heads separated from bodies in one place alone! One of the most notable victims to lose their heads was the king himself Louis XVI, whose death was the result of the unanswered question “Uh, what should we do about the King?” once the revolution got underway. For years the revolutionaries failed to provide an adequate answer until events spiralled out of control and regicide became the only solution, despite the disastrous ramifications that would have on France and Europe as a whole. Leading the demands for Louis’s death was Maximilien Robespierre, the young lawyer who soon became de-facto ruler of France. He radicalised the revolution further and further, instilled an insatiable bloodthirst that was never slaked, devoted himself to the cause as a religious fanatic would, willing to traverse the ocean of blood if it meant arriving at utopia. Well, he never got there since the monster he created turned on him so suddenly yet oh-so predictably, bring the Reign of Terror to a close. Another high-profile execution was that of Queen Marie Antoinette, who became embodiment of all that was wrong with the ancient regime in the eyes of the revolutionaries (also, she was detested by the French in general since She was an Austrian – sacre bleu!). On the Île de la Cité, the island home of Notre Dame, there’s an ancient palace called the Conciergerie, which served as the prison for those to be executed, including Marie Antoinette. The cell she spend her final days in is now a very small but sombre chapel dedicated to the woman who, let’s be honest, probably doesn’t deserve all the hate she gets. Some of it, definitely, but history has certainly been unfair to her. Also, Dr Guillotin, the inventor of the guillotine, was not killed by his own invention as legends state – that was a different Mr. Guillotin. Incidentally, Dr. Guillotin rests in Père Lachaise – I was not able to find him, however.

Place de la Concorde, where crowds would gather to see heads separated from bodies in the 1790s.

If you’re pretty spooked yet still have a desire to visit Paris, I’m sure you’ll make a list of places to avoid due to the corpses when you decide to go to Paris. I mean, go ahead I guess, but sucks to be you since you won’t be visiting much of anything: Aside from the aforementioned cases, there is but a single mummy in the Louvre and a man also base-jumped from the Eiffel Tower and died when his experimental parachute suit failed – there’s an old-timey video you can watch, if you’re feeling weird enough to watch a man die. But surely one can still saunter down the cobbled alleys, let the scent of pastries and coffee waft from into your nostrils and be serenaded by the birdsongs of snobbish Parisians scoffing and swearing at each other and be free from death…right? But when I said there’s death no matter where you step, I meant it. For deep below the streets of Paris is a sunless empire, inhabited by six-million dead Parisians, simply known as The Catacombs…

The coffee in one hand and pain-au-chocolat in the other did little to warm me up that chilly autumn morning. The queue to descend into the Catacombs was insane, and it wasn’t even open yet. One the feet ahead of me shuffled forward, I was excited, only to have that excitement dashed once I descended the steep, spiral staircase. The air begins to smell slightly musky, like a dusty room that’s suddenly been disturbed. But that’s not dust you’re smelling. The corridor is narrow and absorbs all sound, the crunching of dirt beneath your feet muted against the beating of your heart. The dim lights taunt you as you work your way deeper into the Catacombs, yet to see a single bone, every corner turned building suspense. Then just before entering the ossuary (the bone room), a sign appears, loosely translated as: Do not smoke in the ossuary, and don’t you even think about touching the human remains. Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but the little hand and skull crossed out below it for the non-French speaking audience really blew my mind: Just how pervasive must the problem of people disturbing skeletal remains be that it warrants a sign? I would’ve thought it common sense at the very least –bad juju must come your way if you’re touching dead bodies without just cause, especially just for a laugh, right?

The room Marie Antoinette spent her final days in before being executed.

And by God, there are bones: so many bones. Remember how I said that all the graveyards in Paris are relatively new? Back in the early reign of Louis XVI, there were too many people dying in Paris and nowhere to bury them. Furthermore, cemeteries were collapsing into adjacent basement walls due to the sheer weight of bodies. What to do? Well, after a flurry of ineffective laws (including ‘stop using the cemeteries’ – death rate plummeted soon after, I’m sure), the solution was to eventually shove them all underground in the abandoned mines that ran underneath the city, and the way the bones are stacked and packed along the walls demonstrates just how oversaturated the city was with the dead. Skulls are arranged to create macabre masterpieces. Cracked, split and with too many holes, each skull was a human, stored a brain with thoughts and memories, and is now being stared at by disturbed tourists wondering who put them in a cruciform pattern and surrounded them with bones that aren’t even theirs. I was distressed at just how many people were touching the remains and laughing, as if this was in any way a humorous thing to do. And it just went on for eternity, this nightmarish cavern stretching on seemingly forever. And this is only the path you’re allowed on – gates are everywhere, sealing off the rest of the crypt that sprawls underneath Paris. This doesn’t stop the “cataphiles”, those of us that are brave (or stupid) enough to explore the underground maze. Despite the best efforts of police, cataphiles keep burrowing their way underground, through manholes, sewers and the metro into the pitch black with only their wits to ensure their survival. In fact, according to legend, explore the labyrinth long enough and you’ll find the Gates of Hell. It would probably be the least horrifying thing you discover among the flooded passageways, collapsed tunnels, sudden drops and fields of dead bodies piled several metres high. And at the very end of this harrowing experience through but a tiny section of this hellish warren, they check your backpack to see if you stole any bones – who the Hell wants to steal the femur from someone who died in the 16th century?

And when you emerge into the glare of daylight, you realise that the dead are always beneath your feet and in every building that keep the City of Love alive. Yet people still find the beauty in a city like Paris even with all the death that is inexorably linked to it. But maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do: Embrace death in our lives as part of the natural order, to not ‘other’ it, to live in harmony with it. Not to invite it into your life per se, but to not be too shocked when it comes knocking on your door. After all, we all have to die at some point – so why not do something so memorable in life that people long after your death flock to kiss your grave (and do other unsavoury things to it)?

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If you enjoyed this post, be sure to give it a like and share it with your friends! Also consider following on social media so you can be notified when a new post appears – I appreciate your support and I’ll see you soon! – Jacob

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