The Empire of the Dead

Basically every picture I took of the catacombs turned out blurry, so the rest of these will be nice landscapes

On the principle that Europeans take their holidays seriously, I decided to take a little vacation. I was planning to meet my Mom and Sister in Rome for Christmas, and it seemed appropriate that for my first time in Europe, I should take a little Eurorail trip. So I wandered southward from Amsterdam to Paris to Nice to Rome, before hopping over to Crete and Athens for Christmas. Not a bad break.

The Watson offers me this freedom, but, fortunately for me, people die everywhere, so I was able to continue to do some “research.” Given that I was mostly looking around the sorts of world capitals that had been built on old Roman ruins, this mostly meant exploring old catacombs.

The view from Notre Dame

I started in Paris, whose image as the city of lights and love is in tension with its history as essentially a live-in sewer. Its catacombs grew out of two concurrent public crises. The first was that blocks of houses kept falling into the earth. Since the Romans, Lutetian limestone had been mined from the Paris bedrock, with varying degrees of safety and forethought. As the pillars began to buckle, sinkholes started devouring houses. The Inspection Générale des Carrières (Inspectorate of Mines) was founded in 1774 to map and shore up the Swiss cheese foundations of the city. Around the same time, Les Innocents, the euphemistic name for the paupers mass graves, had begun to overflow, with walls of propreties bordering the cemetery collapsing beneath the weight. spreading disease and human decay to their surrounding neighborhoods. Seeing a way to get rid of the bodies on the cheap, the old mines were consecrated, and over two years, the peacefully at rest remains were picked up and plopped into their new home, and the door was shut behind them.

Sunrise on Montpelier

The space was reopened in 1814 Héncart de Thury, the head inspector of mines, an entrepreneur who saw an opportunity. The bones of the interred are arranged in patterns, the tibias and scapulas filling the spaces along the walls between rows of skulls. Realizing the obvious entertainment value of having a date in this skeleton jungle, he placed quotes on death from the Bible, literature, and poetry around the maze and started selling tickets.

Now a part of the Museé Carnavelet, the catacombs have become educational in intent, leading one through the historical narrative of the place, from the geology to engineering tricks that hold the place up. People take pictures with the bones, the flash from their cameras bouncing around. The path is well-lit and fixed, leading to a gift shop where you can buy a t-shirt exclaiming “Keep Calm and Remember You Will Die” and absinthe in a skull shaped bottle. It’s a little kitsch.

But in the moments when the sounds of the family vacations faded away, the experience was unsettling in the best way, while the macabre vision of the mountains of skulls offered an underlying humor. A sort of pleasurable unease under the weight of the anonymous dead.


By contrast, the Catacombs of San Callisto in Rome were a more sedate affair, with the bodies moved out of public view to the lower floors. The spaced house many of the early Popes and Roman converts to Christianity. Small niches in the volcanic rock held the bodies. Families often shared a room, including space for their slaves, “freed” at the point of death. Early Popes were buried there as well, their spaces crowded with other niches from those seeking some divine perks. During periods of Roman persecution of Christians, it’s said church services were held in the catacombs, as Roman law strictly prohibited interference in cemeteries. Unlike the Paris Catacombs, the tour was led by a guide. Much of the emphasis was on the religious-historical significance of the space, the ritualistic nature of the artifacts and frescoes left behind.

The Roman Forum

Both spaces are unlike a cemetery. A cemetery is solemn, but it’s a collective quietness. The peace of the dead is shared with the living. But to enter a catacomb requires moving beyond a threshold, descending underground. Unlike the Necropolis in Glasgow, one couldn’t imagine having a picnic among the bodies. But in the Parisian catacombs, the laughing skulls point to a different kind of peace. The macabre death has a cheery nihilism to it. Entering the catacombs, there is a sign that says “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!” Stacked in grotesque piles, the bones say “we can’t be touched here.” In the disregard paid to the bodies of the paupers, there’s an authority claimed.

With the Roman catacombs, the tone is changed. The slaves may have slots next to their masters, but always in secondary places, off to the side. There are trinkets and items placed near them, and the spaces nearest to the Pope are the most valuable real estate, as if the divine selects for heaven based on geographical distance to piety. Death feels less strange in Rome, not an ultimate transformation, more a move to a new neighborhood.


At the same time, with the Parisian catacombs, the anonymity offers no space for an interplay between the living and the dead. The dead are unrecognizable, and we can only look at them as a future we cannot understand, that can’t be integrated into our experience. We can visit their realm, but hear only their silence. Absent ritual significance, it unsettles but does not provoke. The place of religion, as offered in the Roman catacombs, is to give a language to this experience. The dead are offered dignity, because we see in them a fundamental part of ourselves. The experience of visiting is less immediately visceral, because I at least lack the framework for understanding the role these individuals played. The meaning of a stone niche is specific to those who survived. The Popes and Christian symbolism hope to put meaning into life’s ultimate transformation.

Two ways of interacting with death, one reverent, the other macabre. Self-serious and ironic. A symbol of status, rubbing up next to Popes and a ramshackle resting place for the unremembered.


I dunno, at least those are my initial thoughts. I’m continually curious about what seem to me the two broad categories through which people read death. I’ve made it to India (!), where maybe I’ll find a totally different approach to this sort of thing. Who knows.


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