~This essay was originally published under “Adrienne Ross” in
you are here: the journal of creative geography (2008).
1 Place Denfert-Rochereau’s doors are black. Printed there in block letters are the words: “Entrée Des Catacombes” (Entrance to the Catacombs.) It is mid-day. I am hungry. I buy a chocolate croissant from the boulangerie across the street and nibble it as I enter the ossuary’s doors, pay 5 Euros, and take my place in the line of tourists walking past warning signs (“Le chiens ne sont pas admis” / Dogs are not allowed), past historical photographs of the centuries-old quarries being transformed into catacombs, past video cameras, and down the spiral staircase to the bone yard beneath the streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter. I am far from home, alone in a city of stones and strange words.
In the world above, years ago, I was searching for merlins, peregrines, eagles along western Washington’s Bow Edison Road when I found a dead deer in the knee-high, roadside grass. Her nose was ebony, her tawny fur was coarse with dirt and gravel, her legs were arced for flight as she must have been before being hit by a car. She was gutted open. Rain pooled pink with blood. Her ribs were intact: bone sentinels standing guard over heart, lungs, intestines long after the battle was lost.
We walk down a tight, curling staircase, down, down, down, its steps worn grey stone. For a time, we can hear the whistles and sirens from the street. We are 20 or so meters underground. Where are we? Where am I? Where is my lover or my friends, all half a world away? We come to a dark and narrow, stone walled passageway. Stones crunch under footsteps. The electric hum of sparse light bulbs, the chitchat of tourists, a girl’s high-pitched “Daddy?” echo as we walk. In the underground air is a smell too clean for death. We walk. The passageway turns through darkness. We walk past cells barred by metal grates, past a half-eaten apple, past a fire extinguisher. We walk into a gallery where there are shadows, stone columns, and a stone floor, a white plastic lawn chair with an open novel on its seat, and a guard wearing sneakers, a blue rain parka, and a red baseball cap. Signs on columns read: “Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la morte. Vous etes invite a ne rien toucher, et a ne pas fumer dans l’ossuarie.” (Stop! This is the empire of the dead. You are asked to not touch and to not smoke in the ossuary.)
In the world above, years ago, on a dirt road near Landruk, Nepal, I was bargaining with a Tibetan refugee for silver bracelets when I saw on his roadside stand what I thought was a grey shell cut in half, tin-plate on the inside, Buddhist prayers carved on the outside. It was a human skull fragile and near weightless in my hand. Tibetan Buddhists regard death as liberation from the delusions, fears, desires stalking us like hungry ghosts. Perhaps a Buddhist could have meditated over the skull on the impermanence of life, but I believed then, and still do, that I have only one life to live as best I can. I confused the occipital and parietal bones with the hopes and loves of the person they once sheltered. I put the skull down. I bought finger cymbals and a garnet ring instead.
We lose our loose community of strangers at the bone vault’s entrance. We each have to cross that threshold alone. I hesitate. A gut-instinct of fear: don’t come too close to death. As if being alive I wasn’t already close to death. As if I could no longer keep my trust that, of course, I had days, weeks, months, years, decades yet to come. I cross the barrier. I step into darkness, into the faint gleam of isolated electric lights, into a room of disembodied skeletons and scattered heaps of lives torn asunder into tibia, fibula, clavicles, carpal, ribs, pelvis, vertebrae stacked five feet high and extending into darkness. The bones were the color of cinnamon, hard as stone, the skulls showing the zig-zag crevices of fused plates, the empty sockets staring at the dark, stony ground, the dark ceiling where water dripped. Skulls, scapulas, sacrums, patellas, metatarsals were all stripped clean from bacteria, mold, spiders, time. Only bones. Nothing to fear. Death is ancient here, and the dangers of life and the love of chocolate and violets, the kiss never given, the sunrise prayer are far away. An American tourist, middle-aged and gut-bellied in Dockers, and draped with Pentax, Olympus, Minolta, Nikon and video cameras strides into the cavern. His wife stops him with a gentle touch of her hand and points to a sign. “What!” he yells shocked into a halted mid-step. “No photos!”
In the world above, I keep a deer’s leg bone in a spider plant’s terra cotta pot. I keep a fish’s fanged jaw on a bookcase and a deer’s vertebrae in a dieffenbachia’s ceramic pot. In a red Tibetan bowl, I keep rabbit mandibles left after coyotes found a warren, and the jumbled skulls and small bones of mice and voles spewed out in an owl’s pellet. It’s not that I set out to find bones. It’s simply that death is everywhere in a world so filled with life, and the bones are everywhere, too, if you know where to look. Now dirt and dust gather in bone crevices. Tissue, muscle, the gristle of life, the flesh of scars, birthmarks and memories, the heart’s softness all decay back into the world. What’s left are bones that are brittle, brown, sometimes broken, memorials to a life anonymous in death.
We walk through tunnels and across galleries past the bones of lives laid to rest centuries ago, unearthed from crowded church cemeteries that had been spewing pestilence and miasma onto the streets of the living, until in 1786 a reburial began as the bones of some 6 million dead were moved to Paris’ vast network of underground quarries and tunnels. The catacombs at Denfert-Rochereau are one brief mile in the dead’s empire. We walk past stone benches in a grotto of humerus, femurs, phalanges, ulna. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. An hour. That old joke: it’s not that life is so short, it’s that death is so long. Two American boys in shorts and tee shirts pull bones from the heaps, femurs, I think, and start a swordfight to break the boredom. We walk past inspirational signs printed in French and Latin, the graffiti too worn to read. “Ainsi tout passé sur la terre / espirt, beaute, graces/ t’elle est une fluer ephemere.” (In this way, all that has passed on the earth / spirit, beauty, graces / all is one brief flower.) We walk past gated tunnels. We walk, and I shorten the distance to my death, and my bones shelter the marrow growing the blood that keeps me walking. “Òu est elle la Morte? Toujours future ou passé.” (Where is Death? / Always future or past.) We walk past the squeals and laughter of children holding up pelvis bones as masks. We walk.
In the world above, years ago, I was searching for chanterelle mushrooms in the green and rain world alongside the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River, when I stepped off the trail and found an ungulate’s spine. Perhaps an elk. Perhaps a deer. All that was left on the wet ground was a row of vertebrae where the animal fell, or perhaps where it lay down, slept, dreamed, died. Tendrils of tufted emerald moss and the black hieroglyphics of pencil script lichens spread across the white bones. I remember silence, even awe, at old bones sheltering new life.
We walk, we walk past rooms of bones, we walk past caverns of bones, we walk past another drop of water cold on the face as it falls from stone ceiling to stone walkway. Skulls line stone pillars. Another turn. Skulls form decorative diagonal rows in femur walls. As if a pretty design could hide the unruliness of each of these long forgotten people’s lost lives. The bones of peasant and master are here; the bones of the revolution’s assassins are rubbing shoulders with their victims. The flesh is gone from too many lives to imagine. The bones remain. And the lives of these people’s descendants, perhaps scattered to distant shores, perhaps rubbing shoulders with me on the Metro, perhaps walking past me along the Winged Victory’s staircase at the Louve, perhaps eating cheese and a baguette as we sit in the Cluny’s medieval garden. There is no lasting loneliness within so much life. Centuries ago, the walking, breathing bone house of one of these strangers stopped to smell a clutch of cilantro, or walked into a new church, or perhaps the same one, considered a friend’s face, paused by a manuscript, or took up some other forgotten, mundane action that released ripples of consequences surrounding me as I walk past another turn, past another chamber of bones, past another world of bones.
And so we walk into the world above, we walk past bones and darkness, we walk up stairs, up stairs, up stairs to diffuse sunlight streaming through the windows and open door of a room where uniformed guards search rucksacks, pocketbooks, camera bags for a purloined pelvis, a stolen skull, a trinket of a tibia. For hadn’t we emerged from the underworld (or as close to it as we will get in this life) like the Sumerian goddess Inanna who, in spite of happiness, set her ear to the Great Below, journeyed into the underworld, was murdered by her sister Ereshkigel, and then reborn into an even more passionate life? But this was no true initiation. The passageway was never blocked. No demons were there. We deserve no tokens. We’re just tourists visiting death the same way we’re visiting life. And besides, here in the world above, the guards are bored. Coffee is going cold in paper cups. Croissants are turning to crumbs as the afternoon wears on. And beyond the open door is a frazzle of rain, sunlight, sparrows darting between the wheels of parked Citroens, smells of fresh baked brioche and loaves of rye from a boulangerie’s open window. And yet the city is new to me. Even with a map, I am soon too lost to find the Metro.
- Paris, 2002
Author's notes: I visited in 2002 when this address was in use (verified by travel guides.) The catacombs web site uses a new address: 1, avenue of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. The catacombs were renovated recently, and it’s possible a new address was opened or the street was renamed or other logistical details have shifted. Inanna is the Summerian goddess of love, fertility and war, also known as Ishtar.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“The Paris Catacombs” arose from a tour I’d taken during my first trip to Paris. Upon returning to the U.S., I realized my notes were episodic and well suited to my favorite essay form, the collage. As I wrote of the “bones below,” I thought more and more of the many bones I’d encountered in “the world above,” and incorporating those instances allowed me to weave the juxtaposition of the living walking through a world filled with life and death, breath and bone. Some early readers were put off by the topic, but I think having occasional (gentle) reminders of your inevitable death is a good way of remembering to live life to the fullest while you’re still here.
ABOUT ADRIENNE ROSS SCANLAN
Adrienne Ross Scanlan’s nature writing and other creative nonfiction has appeared in the City Creatures blog, the Prentice Hall Reader, Sugar Mule, Pilgrimage, Tiny Lights and many other print or online journals. She is the nonfiction editor of the Blue Lyra Review, a literary journal of diverse voices, and in 2016, Mountaineers Books will publish her narrative nonfiction book, Turning Homeward: Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild (tentative title). Her website is adrienne-ross-scanlan.com.