The Tomb of the Unknown Tourist

by G Goodman

I finally visited the catacombs in Paris today.  I went by myself.  After walking down a dizzyingly long, narrow spiral stair case and then walking down at least a quarter of a mile of chlostrophobically-narrow and low, winding hallways (with no other visitors present), I finally entered the area of the dead.  An estimated 6 million skeletal remains have been artistically placed in these caverns.  It is dark, and damp, and has a bit of a strange smell–not of decay exactly, or at least not rotting flesh…but perhaps the smell of ancient, decaying calcium.  As I arrived just before closing, I mostly had the place to myself–well, that is, it was me and about 6 million dead people, but you know…I was the life of the party.

Above head, the caves dripped water down into puddles on the stone floor.  Drip, drip, drip. Just the sound of drips of water and the sound of my boots as I walked the slickness.

At one point I backed up against the wall in order to get a wide-shot photo.  When I bumped into the wall, it took me a second to realize that I was backed up against a row of skulls and a few hundred femur bones.

“Stop. This here is the empire of the dead.”

This is a very long, spooky, walk to make by yourself.

These two city carvings were sculpted from memory by one of the excavators back in the 19th century.  He died during a cave-in.

Wells had to be built for the excavators to have access to fresh water.

And anyway, folks, that was my last full day in Paris.  It was a real scream.  Tomorrow I board a train to Torino, Italy, where I hope things are little more lively.  But the catacombs were an apt place to visit on my last day in Paris…despite being surround by beauty and art and millions of bodies, I still felt mostly by myself, cold and damp, unsexy and claustrophobic, and mostly comforted by the sound of my own footsteps moving forward, quickening, ready to get out of the grey dark if only to step into the grey light.  The irony?  The dark is warmer.  In the light I’m exposed to the elements, to the wind, and to something far scarier than the empire of the dead: the empire of the living.