You first descend, spiraling madly on a staircase that leans in on you, breathes heavily down your back, into the depths below the city. The sounds of the street, the clattering of shop doors, the cries of the vendeur de les fleurs peddling his wares—all of these fade first from hearing and then slowly out of existence.

You wander deeper into the darkness, the mysterious, the occult, the endless stairs dropping out of view before and behind you… A chain of buzzing incandescent bulbs process down the melancholy path until they halt at a deferential distance from the antechamber.

It is a yellowed, sterile room, painted and repainted, telling the history (en Francaise) of the Catacombs. Bated breath exhales, and you quickly glance at the pictures and move on down a hallway.

This hallway gains a life of its own, grabbing and dragging you through endless twists and turns, followed by a suspiciously long straight path only to dodge left and zigzag aimlessly again. As the dull comfort of the prior room grows further and further away, the mystery returns. The corridor is outfitted like a mineshaft, torn into the earth, and cauterized with harsh, ceaseless hall bulbs that hold the darkness from flooding in every ten feet. A wet, musty smell surrounds you, but doesn’t impede your progress. Rather, it keeps you in the catacombs, like an invisible swamp that you wade through, giving you a certainty that anyone attempting to leave would only be sucked all the harder back in.

The walls start to drip, occasionally, with small rivers that come from nowhere and to nowhere return. More and more, dark corners and intrusions into the wall conceal only darkness… Side pats chained off lead only into mystery and fear, as the barren floors creeps off into black oblivion. Around each corner is a foreboding presence but as your eyes strain, no revelation is forthcoming.

Finally, after a dozen false starts and a lengthy hike, the corridor widens and the catacomb’s true entrance lay ahead, clearly marked. Two guards stand idly by, making small talk, and a sign warning “No photography” bid you adieu. You enter the catacombs.


Perhaps it was the originally anti-climactic antechamber. Perhaps the pathways and staircases lulled you into a mistaken belief of eternal mundanity. But the catacombs are a shock: you enter a small, dark room, either side filled five feet high with arm bones, leg bones, long thin brittle… lined perpendicular to you, with piles six feet deep and ten wide. Skulls are neatly arranged in rows, dividing as if they were stylized colored tiles in some greater artistic aesthetic pattern. But the shock is that they are all, real, human bones.

Each was a living soul, went to work or to the streets begging, told jokes and laughed, had a story of its own. An aristocrat lay next to a pauper, a thief aside the sheriff, all anonymous, grinning, uniform. You start to breath again, and then realize that the room you stumbled into is not a room at all, but that you are at the beginning of a hallway that disappears in the dark distance around somber stone corners and the watchful gaze of silence. Millions and millions of bodies, now skeletons, piled. For almost a mile the unblinking stare of a million dead follows you.

And death is not like you expected, not at all. Death is not decay, not bleeding, not hollow eyes or sunken cheeks. Death is not even war or pestilence—all that is life. You expect terror, to see a rat rustling the bones, or to hear a mysterious scurrying behind a pile of thighs. But that—pestilence, sickness, dying—that is all decay, the final stages of life. Death is immutable silence, impenetrable grandeur, death is eternity. The bones have a secret—if you want to live forever, give up. It’s a contradiction, for life is only a preparation for death, and death is only perfection. The bones know not hunger or shame, pride or power, but only certainty and immortality are their garb.

After passing half a mile, of the stone crucifixes, the dozen silent prayers etched in granite, the skulls set in reverent immortals designs amongst the wall of bones, you feel your own decay, your own mortality wear away at you. And as you slowly ascend the stairs again, for a moment you are not of the living, but something transformed: you are one of them. Coming back into the vital sunlight, the noise and bustle of the street, the haunting feeling leaves you, and you shake off the gloom as a dog sheds water, but there is still the reside remaining on you as you head to a café, the residue of something altogether alien to your fundamental existence.