When you think of the City of Light, the first thing to spring to mind is usually not the dead people who reside there. Usually, one thinks of a certain tower (built by a guy who’s now dead), or maybe Montmartre – literally hill of martyrs (named after St. Denis who died there when he had his head removed for him), or even the Champs-Élysées – named for Elysium where according to Greek mythology, people go when they die. Delve a little deeper though and you remember that the French perfected the guillotine, and that in Hunchback of Notre Dame, everyone dies happily ever after. With all the death in the air, it’s no wonder that several of our favorite experiences in Paris dealt with death!
First was our trip to the Catacombs. There are over 90 miles of tunnels under the city of Paris. Originally, these were created when the beautiful white limestone was quarried and used to build the city of Paris. Eventually, a section of the catacombs was designated as an ossuary. Don’t worry, I had to look it up too. An ossuary is where skeletal remains are permanently laid to rest (as opposed to a mortuary which is just a temporary resting place for bodies). In the Paris ossuary, there are the remains of about 6 million people. That’s SIX M-I-L-L-I-O-N!!
Descending down 183 narrow steps down a continuously curving spiral staircase puts into great perspective how deep the Catacombs are. The tunnels are are below the Seine, below the sewers and infrastructure, below even the metro – and they are wonderfully dark, cool and creepy. In Stephanie’s case, creepy was the key word. Normally for a person who feels no fear, I was surprised at how serious she was about me not leaving her side, and resisted the urge to tease her. We walked for what felt like forever through one narrow, darkish tunnel after another – and marveled at the black line drawn on the ceiling for tourists who visited hundreds of years ago before electricity was invented.
When entering the sanctified section, a sign reminds you that you are entering the realm of the dead. The bones are stacked neatly everywhere, and often arranged in interesting patterns. Rather than being scary, there is a sense of reverence about the place, and you find yourself in awe of the number of former Parisians laid to rest here. (Stephanie still got creeped out though.)
Next was one of the surprise highlights of our trip, and I think my personal favorite spot in the entire city of Paris – the Père Lachaise cemetery. It is here that you can visit the graves of such notables as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Bizet, Moliere, Chopin, Delacroix, and Max Ernst (my favorite surrealist painter). Truth be told, our original interest in the site was based on wanting to see the places of rest of these famous people; but we discovered so much more. We could have spent all day there!
The cemetery is like its own enormous walled city with mazes of fascinating cobblestone streets and neighborhoods. It is located in a beautiful park on a huge hill with stepped “terraces” and trees that are hundreds of years old. It’s impossible not to take endless photos, as you slowly wander through, discovering one amazing gravesite after another. After awhile you begin to realize that race, religion and nationality don’t matter in this place, although money certainly must! It seems as though the wealthy (who seem to comprise most of the million plus residents) tried to outdo each other with personal chapels and mausoleums.
While exploring the beautiful and enormous two story columbarium (where cremated remains are housed in the walls), Stephanie and I decided that Père Lachaise would be a wonderful place to be laid to rest, but I just found out you have to have lived in Paris to be buried there, and there is a very long waiting list. Now, how to break the news to her…
Lastly is a place I had wanted to visit for a little while – Phantom Manor. This is the Disneyland Paris equivalent of the Haunted Mansion. The plot is completely different; first telling the story of bride who waits eternally for her groom, and then taking us through a haunted old-west “ghost” town. As a haunted mansion lover, I was not disappointed.
Paris has always been a wonderful place for the living to visit – who knew the dead would make it so interesting?