2016-09-01 / ReBooted

Down to the Bones

Jill Gleeson

Perhaps best known as the country where “gross national happiness” — the measurement of the populace’s well-being — is more important than gross domestic product, Bhutan is supposedly a little obsessed with death. According to an article I read, by contemplating their own eventual death as much as five times a day, the Bhutanese learn not to fear it. It’s a fascinating concept, this idea of taking away death’s power by staring the Grim Reaper square in the eyes. I find myself wondering if I might have experienced a bit of that myself as I trooped recently through the Paris Catacombs.

Part of ancient limestone mines that snake far below the city’s famous boulevards, the Catacombs are filled with the skeletal remains of 6 million people. They are stacked floor to ceiling carefully, sometimes with what could be considered artistic flair, in row upon row of femurs and tibiae, humeri and ulnae and, most strikingly, skulls. Tourists flock from all over the globe to wander the paths carved between these bones, which were moved beginning in 1786 from Paris’ overflowing cemeteries. It’s said the oldest of the remains dates back 1,200 years; famed historical figures who have found their final resting place in the Catacombs include revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre.

I wasn’t precisely afraid to descend the stone spiral staircase leading from the busy streets of Paris to the Catacombs five stories below. I was intrigued, a bit nervous. I’m still not crazy about enclosed spaces, and there is little that feels more enclosed than slim corridors packed with dead people, the weight of an entire city over your head. The inscription above the entrance to the ossuary, which screamed, “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort” didn’t help. I didn’t need more than my mostly forgotten high school French to know it cautioned, “Stop! This is the empire of the dead.”  I’d seen this movie, and it didn’t end well for anyone.

The tunnels were just as creepy as the none-too-subtle warning. At first. Seeing all those bones — damp and tallow-hued, occasionally furred with brilliant green moss — was overwhelming. The skulls, some broken, nearly all missing jawbones, with holes where there were once noses and eyes, were the most disquieting. Here and there the bones had been stacked so they created patterns in the shape of crosses, even a heart. There was just enough light to see, with much remaining dappled by shadow. Water dripped steadily, a result of the torrential spring rains that had flooded the city, an eerie soundtrack to my trek through this empire of the dead. I was grateful, initially, for the other tourists around me. It wasn’t only the cool temperature that raised goose bumps on my flesh.

The section of the Catacombs open to the public is a bit more than a mile, although the entire tunnel system winds on for 200 more. (I couldn’t resist thinking as I passed gated passages, the darkness beyond them so complete it spoke of eternity, just what it would be like to be lost in those abandoned warrens.) It takes about an hour to walk that mile if you dawdle, which I found myself doing. The longer I walked, the more I slowed, peering ever more closely at the skulls in front of me. I began to wonder about the people to whom the bones belonged, about whether they were young or old when they died, men or women. What kind of lives did they lead? Who mourned their absence?

Who, I eventually began to ponder, would mourn mine? Just like the residents of the Paris Catacombs, eventually I will be dust and bone. Everything that I am — in this world, at least — everything I was and hope to be will someday cease to exist. I can’t say I found these thoughts precisely comforting, but there was a certain power in letting myself think them. Maybe the Bhutanese really are on to something. •SCM

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