L'Empire de la Mort: The Paris Catacombs

We numbered 60 people at the last réunion of the Cercle Français de Belfast. Early comers were treated to a selection of French songs performed by Ruari Gallagher. Ruari hails from Belfast and has spent the past few years in the south of France. His vocals and guitar accompaniment went down well and we hope to invite him back soon for one of our Extra! events.

The Dark Horse Coffee Shop was soon packed and Philip McGrory got the technology going for his talk on the Paris Catacombs. He began by taking us through the early history of the site as one of Paris's main limestone quarries. He explained that in 1780, the main cemetery of the city, the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents near Les Halles was forced to close due to its dire threat to public health. The decision was taken to remove remains of those buried there to the disused quarry site and to establish an Ossuary. Remains from other cemeteries were added with the result that skulls and longbones of around 6,000,000 people are preserved there.

Using pictures and web sources, Philip escorted us on a virtual tour. We visited the Workshop and saw how quarrymen cut through the stone to leave pillars of rock standing to support the ceiling. We stopped at the Quarrymen's footbath, a spring where workers drew water for mixing cement; We moved into the Ossuary, marked by a sign over the doorway instructing, " Arrête c'est ici l'empire de la mort". We stopped at the Sepulchral Lamp one of the oldest structures in the catacombs. Quarrymen lit fires in the lamp to create draughts and currents of air. He brought us to Gilbert's Tomb, a piece of reinforcement work designed to look like a stone sarcophagus. And of course we viewed those skulls and longbones. Philip had sourced the biblical origins of the text on the picture above and, thinking about it, we spared thoughts for people now long gone. Finally, we exited to a quiet Parisian street which showed little awareness of what lay beneath.

A show of hands revealed others had also been and all commented on the respectful silence of the place, several metres below the metro and the nearby Place Denfert Rochereau.

Our evening came to a close with several people saying they had not known that the catacombs existed. They mentioned that they would be paying their own visit the next time they were in Paris.

Thanks Philip for a thoroughly researched, fascinating and respectful tour.