Words and Photography by Colin Nicholls
The Catacombs of Paris are one of the most disturbing and macabre tourist attractions you will ever visit, as you descend into the darkness the reality of what you're actually coming to see is somehow lost. It is not until you really think about it that you realise what you're walking into.
Origins: Paris in the early 1800's had various cemeteries across the city, the were for lack of a better description, full. Quiet literally bursting, when in 1780 a basement wall that was next to a cemetery gave way under the bulk of the occupants. It was this event which started the movement to change how the cities dead were put to rest.
Plans were put in place to exhume the bodies from their graves and have them stored in the underground caves that run underneath the city, thereby freeing up space in the cemeteries and creating a rather odd attraction. Towards the end of the 1800's the catacombs were opening more and more to the public, the bones of the dead somehow providing entertainment to those who visited. Today you can visit yourself for about €10 - get the metro to Cité and find the little green building which leads deep underground.
Once you have spent your fair share of time in the queue [be warned it gets crazy busy] you can begin the descent through tunnels to the catacombs. It is dark, wet, and cramped. If you don't like tight spaces, being underground, or the bones of the dead then this won't be for you.
As you start to pass by stacked bones and skulls you start to see the beauty in this display. Patterns and designs that have been left by those who filled the tunnels have become more a piece of art than a storage system for over-full cemeteries.
Every so often, while walking through what is only a small part of the whole system, your mind keeps refreshing the thought of 'that right there' is a skull of a person. A real person, just sat there along with 6 million others.
The construction of the bones is interesting - the front walls which you can see in the photos are mainly skulls and femurs all lined up to make a nice solid wall. Behind is everything else just sort of thrown into the space. You also pass many signs and murals which say about the dead and when the mausoleum was put together. Signs such as 'Arrete! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort' [Stop! This is the empire of the dead] make you glad you're not on your own down there.
If you are ever in Paris and fancy an attraction which isn't quite the norm then head here, you'll not have seen anything quite like it before. It does make me wonder what will become of my remains if where I'm buried becomes too full!