Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kingdom of the Dead

"How now, old bare bones! What word of the worm?" Clark Ashton Smith, 1893-1961.

On the first day of spring Miss Scarlett and myself ( above ) rendezvoused with our friends Alex Wawerka and his partner Sylvie to descend the narrow spiral staircase beneath Avenue Rene Coty, adjacent to the Metro station of Denfert-Rochereau, in the southern suburbs of the city of Paris. Leaving the warm sunlight behind us we entered a veritable realm of the dead.

The legendary catacombs of Paris were created at the end of the 18th C. to serve as an ossuary. In 1780 Paris' largest cemetery, The Cimetiere des Saints-Innocents, located in the Les Halles district, was closed for public health reasons at the request of local residents. On the ninth of November the Council of State issued a decree requiring the removal of the human remains. The dolorous task of preparing the storage site fell to the quarries department which had been set up by the Royal Council for the purpose of protecting and reinforcing Paris' subterranean quarries and preventing subsidence. It was decided that bones from all the city's cemeteries would be stored in disused limestone quarries in the Tombe-Issoire district. This continued until 1860, notably during the extensive urban development carried out by Haussmann.

At the beginning of the 19th C, the catacombs were opened to the public, attracting large numbers of visitors. Inscriptions on the walls of the winding labyrinth provide the names of the streets above and details of works conducted in the corridors.

Moag, our benign, maleficent in-house daemon, ( above ) who accompanied us on our tour of the netherworld was particularly taken by the miniature buildings, towers and battlements carved into the walls of what has come to be known as the 'Port-Mahon' corridor.

These were apparently created by a mad quarryman named Decure, who had fought in the army's of Louis XV. Working alone in the darkness Decure sculpted an exact replica of Port-Mahon, the largest town on the island of Minorca, one of the Balearic Islands, where he is believed to have been held prisoner for man years by the English.

The gateway leading to the necropolis is framed by two stone pillars decorated with curious geometric figures. The lintel bears the inscription 'Arrete, c'estici l'empire de la mort' ( 'Stop! This is the empire of death!' ) and further along other maxims ad reflections on the fragility of human life can be found.

Plunging deeper into the lightless labyrinth we found ourselves surrounded by the remains of some six million Parisians,stacked in the 780 metres of corridors that run below the quadrilateral formed by avenue Rene Coty, rue Halle, rue Dareau and rue d'Alembert.

There is no sign in this stygian underworld of the heavens of light or hells of fire promised by the priests, sibyls and hierophants, only the dull realization that bodies are made of dust and water, the last of which is evaporable, and the former capable of dissolvement, a funerial wisdom that unlike the iron bound books of the prophets and the mighty grimoires of the sorcerers and sages can be readily accommodated within a single skull.

The first bones were brought here in 1786 and simply thrown in the corridors. it was only in 1810, under the Empire, that General Inspector of Quarries Hericart de Thury had the Catacombs arranged in an orderly fashion, forming a decorative facade with the skulls and long bones, behind which the remaining bones were piled in a vast heap.

'A reservoir of darkness, black as witches' cauldrons are, when fill'd with moon-drugs in th' eclipse distill'd...'

The tenebrous lanes of bone lead ever deeper into the irreverberate blackness of the abyss...

Down and down...

A spiral staircase leads still deeper to the 'bain de peds des carriers' or 'quarrymen's footbath', a pool of crystal clear groundwater uncovered by the quarry workers.

This eerie, silent pool never runs dry and was used by workers to mix cement during works in the catacombs.

Gazing down into the abysmal depths below I was reminded of the words of Thomas Moore: - '... Leaning to look if foot might pass down thro' that chasm, I saw, beneath, as far as vision could explore, the jetty sides as smooth as glass, looking as if just varnished o'er with that dark pitch the Sea of Death throws out upon its slimy shore...'

Deep within the bowels of the Catacomb I came across a skull that bore the unmistakeable mark of a bullet hole ( above ) and this curious, painted visage which reminded me of Mark 13 and the 'HARDWARE' poster.

Et in Arcadia ego...

Returning to the surface we found ourselves curiously unmoved by the spectacle of mass death and our proximity to those old bones. Whatever it was that had once made them human seemed to have long departed, rendering them into little more than elaborate gothic decor. Reflecting on how little time we had left to us we made our way back towards the land of the living and the waiting railway station, knowing that there was still much work to be done this side of death and a great many more miles to go before we could afford to sleep.

To be continued...

- Special thanks to Alexis and Sylvie for the amazing b&w shots and the pic of Moag.


  1. Down in the Parisian catacombs, reminds we of the part in Lord of the Rings and the valley of the dead. Brilliant work!
    C'est la vie

  2. No problems It was a plasure Sir Stanley