Thursday, May 8, 2008


So, the photo of the skulls in the Paris Catacombs might not be the most comforting image in the universe, I grant you. But I really am fascinated by the Catacombs, both those in Paris, and those in Rome. And that interest morphs into appreciation for regular cemeteries also. Some people don't like graveyards and think I'm morbid. But I think they are such a tangible, and beautiful connection to our past. They are pleasant places to spend some time, have a picnic even, as our ancestors from the 19th century did.

My first introduction to catacombs was in Rome when my cousin and I did one of the tours along the Appian Way. The Roman catacombs were more a place of clandestine worship and meeting for the early Christians who were persecuted in those days. They knew they could gather under the radar, underground, and keep out of the way of the authorities, so this is where they met. And when their few members died, they could bury them there as well. Some of the catacombs had previous spiritual significance from the earlier Pagan practitioners, so the two uses sort of blended together. I felt a little claustrophobic inside, and was so relieved to be able to step out on the Appian Way afterwards and get some fresh air. Though, that was another mind-blowing experience in itself, to be standing on paving stones that had been there for over 2,000 years, and used as a road pretty much their whole existence. Amazing!

Later I got a chance to see the Catacombs of Paris, which was pretty amazing. These were not as old, dating only as far back as the 1700's. The Parisian catacombs were the new resting place for thousands and thousands of displaced bones moved from other, older, over-crowded Parisian cemeteries. It's a pretty gross idea what the workers had to do that moved all these bones into the new "ossuaries" ("bone depositories"). They had to dig up the old graves, clean out the bones, move them to the catacombs, sort of keep track of where they were from (in a general sense) in the old cemetery, label them, and then organize them into sturdy, somewhat decorative patterns in caverns that may or may not have been sturdy. There became a brotherhood of these workers. And they began to have initiation rites into the brotherhood, emphasizing that once you were accepted, you would not be left behind with all these already-dead people. The work conditions were not great, of course. The caverns they were filling in with bones had once been quarries for stone for all the magnificent buildings around Paris. But that meant that some of the cavern rooms were not that strong and could collapse. There was also the danger of getting some kind of disease from the "fresher" of the skeletons. So the workers built these little chapels where the initiations could happen. The tour guides say they were pretty religious ceremonies, based on Catholic blessings. And I wish I could remember if there was a patron saint invoked or not. But these chapels still feel safer (and drier!) than the rest of the place.

One of the things that drew me to one of my favorite movies, Delicatessen, (besides the wicked dark humor) was the scenes in "les egouts" or the sewer system that also runs under Paris. I really want to take a tour of the sewers, or at least check out the museum. Apparently the guidebook, Paris Secret, is excellent.

All of this leads me to my appreciation of cemeteries. I've been to Père-Lachaise and admired the graves in New Orleans, both of which have magnificent grave markers. I like that there is so much emotion in the carvings and inscriptions (check out the AWESOME virtual tour of Père-Lachaise!). That there is such a presence of and reverence for death. It's comforting in a way. That these people in these tombs won't be forgotten, even if we don't actually know who the people are inside them. I like the cemeteries in Philadelphia. They also have the grand monuments and the feeling of the closeness of death since they boomed in the 19th Century as well.

I could go on and on. Maybe more to come in a future post.

1 comment:

Odyssey said...

What a lovely post on Rome! You make my heart to go back to Italy ! You have a stunning blog ! I have always dreamed of visiting Italy!
I would love to enjoy Catacombs Tours in Rome!! Thanx for sharing excellent informations.
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