Paris, where the living refuse to let their dead go

Wednesday June 21 2017

By MUTHONI THANG'WA
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I greatly admire the poem "Death I Do Not Fear You" by Juan Olivarez. The poem gently taunts death, her fetid smell and cold embrace.

But I am reconsidering this position after visiting an extensive graveyard under the city of Paris. As an African who lives and pays taxes in Kenya, I did not really have a clarified opinion of death, except awe.

It was, therefore, only by accident that I happened on the Paris Catacombs. I would not deliberately go in search of a graveyard, even as a heritage practitioner. No I would not!

I have been to Arlington Cemetery in the United States, not by choice. It was someone’s way of introducing me to the city of Washington, DC, years ago.

Apart from the fact that it occupies more than 600 acres of land and is more of a serene garden, I just do not understand why anyone would put a cemetery on the tourist map.

"The neat rows with thousands of grave stones, superimposed with trees in bloom just make it seem so unreal", was my only thought of it.

If humans are chaotic and energetic in life, it is unlikely that they would be that orderly in death, resting in organised straight rows in complete silence and peace. But I digress.

SECRET HISTORY

I set out to find the Museum Carnavalet in Paris, from which I was told I would learn the history of the city. As those who work in the heritage sector find themselves doing every time they visit a city they do not live in, I was equipped with a ‘to do’ itinerary of heritage sites or museums.

Paris is a treasure trove of heritage sites, museums, monuments, art, historical sites, pristine little gardens and coffee shops. At Carnavalet Museum I hoped to learn a little more about the history of the city.

Then I happened on a very long queue that curved around a park. I am the proverbial cat and my curiosity set me on a discovery mission to the front of the line and the entrance of this popular site.

The Paris Catacombs is literally an ancient graveyard, full of millions of Parisians. It is the secret history of the dead of the city and a glimpse of the way Paris as a large city has dealt with her dead over the years.

Our overflowing Lang'ata Cemetery is apparently an ancient story for Paris.

GRAVE DANGER

The story of the catacombs is very interesting. As the city of Paris grew, voraciously growing quarries developed around it from a series of mines, where Lutetian limestone, which built all those impressive buildings, as well as gypsum used to make ‘Plaster of Paris’ was mined.

Once the minerals were exhausted, the mines were abandoned, creating an underground network of tunnels and voids. These underground mines are found in a wider part of the city and it is forbidden to explore them. But tell that to adventurers!

It is only the 1.7 kilometres that have been used for the ossuary popularly referred to as the Catacombs of Paris that are open to the public.

Around 1774, the mines began to cave in, causing grave danger to Parisians. At the same time, the city’s cemetery began to overflow, particularly Saint Innocent, the largest cemetery that had been in use since the Middle Ages and was often used for mass graves.

NIGHT VIGILS

It was closed in 1780 and in 1786, the city began to exhume some of the bodies and take them to the quarries that were collapsing, leaving gaping holes in the city. Burying of the dead in the city was also forbidden by law.

But the living would not let their dead go and they started night vigils to visit them in the quarries. So the mayor allowed monthly visitations of the dead and eventually some brilliant person came up with the idea of public galleries.

That, though, is not all about this macabre history of the catacombs. When the bodies were exhumed, the bones (used to build the walls of the catacombs), and the fat from the dead bodies had separated to form margaric acid, which apparently was collected and used to make soaps and candles.

The guide may have exaggerated on perhaps seeing the genuine horror on the faces of his audience, but at that point I found it quite unnecessary to shower, in Paris. All these gory details were dished out generously within the first 10 minutes.

Then we were requested to follow the guide in a series of narrow tunnels on which human skulls are the major form of décor and attraction. I had enough when the guide gleefully announced that we were headed for the "empire of death" section.

The putrid smell of death was so very real in my mind and the tunnels were confusing, damp, moist and terrifying. Did I mention that the catacombs are 20 metres underground?

Ms Thangwa works in the heritage sector, specialising in culture and enterprise. Twitter: @muthonithangwa