"Halt, this is the empire of the dead."
I have a fear of death. I'm fairly certain that it is the ppain connected with dying that scares me most--drowning, burning, the agony of disease. Dying alone. That's a huge part of the problem. I know...we all die alone; death is a personal passage; a solitary journey. I get that. Even when someone is holding your hand you're still alone in that final sleep.
A few days prior to this trip to Paris, I was lying in bed, awake with anxiety, trying to fall asleep. I kept repeating the word "death" over and over. I was trying to get comfortable with it as a word, take some of the darkness and mystique from it; challenge its power.
It is fitting--if only to me--that on my first full day in Paris (on this, my second trip) that I spent some time underground, communing with the bones of many a Parisian's past.
The descent began via spiral staircase. Spiraling down into the depths of the city's underground. Roughly 60 feet. Dimly lit, narrow passageways, well worn and slick from moisture and travel, were the path to follow as I felt myself sloping gradually deeper below the surface. The only life was that of the others around me doing the same thing.
It was cold. Chilled to the bone now takes on a new meaning. I felt my teeth trying to chatter. I forbade them to do so, daring them to defy me. I won. I felt my body tense, waiting for someone to jump from one of the dark crevices to scare me. But this was no haunted house or set for a horror film. This was concentrated ground.
Aside from those walking this passage with a companion (and talking while doing so) the journey was silent and serene. Even those holding conversations were kerping them at a low volume. Isn't it amazing how much respect is given to the dead? Oh that we might treat each other in life with as much courtesy and respect. Imagine what your subway ride might actually be like.
To ogle at stacks of bones might seem an odd thing to do, but the history behind their stacking is fascinating.
In the 18th century it seems health conscious Parisians were looking to improve the city's sanitary conditions. Their bright idea was to empty the church cemeteries, moving the bones to what had formerly been limestone quarries underneath the city. It took decades to complete the process. Ceremonial processions of carts of bones were led by priests to the newly repurposed quarries, now catacombs. In places, the bones could be found stacked five feet high and up to 80 feet deep. Talk about sharing space. And for that matter, can you even imagine the uproar it might cause today to even suggest moving bodies from the cemetery? I don't even want to think about the backlash and sense of entitlement that would present itself.
Death is cold yet I wonder if the ancient ghosts feel the warm presence of the bodies passing through, gawking at their bones as they lie, en mass, in rest.
"Happy is he who is forever faced with the hour of his death and prepares himself for the end every day."
86 narrow steps twist to the surface. I wasn't any worse for wear--the chill warmed; the damp spots from the drips that fell on me from the limestone ceiling dried--just different. Walking between stacks of bones, staring into empty holes where once sat eyes that saw the Paris of another century, isn't something I do every day.
In the remnants of death it seems we're all the same. That we might recognize that while we're alive.