I had a strong aversion to doing anything that involved standing in a line in Paris. All of the big sites have outrageous lines. Sometimes there are two lines - a ridiculously long one and then a slightly shorter line for people who bought their tickets ahead of time. Instead, we spent a lot of time in places where there was no line at all. Some of them were even free! When there are free things with no waiting, you can see how I'd look at a line of people and then just keep walking.
However, there was one place where we waited in line for two hours in the rain. We really wanted to go to the catacombs.
I know, you are admiring how romantic we are. A honeymoon in Paris! That's gotta be all candlelight and accordion music and cruises on the Seine right? Or whatever people in Paris do for romance. I have no idea, because we were walking around in tunnels looking at bones.
Besides an afternoon walking around and eating bread, another vacation event that has really affected the way I travel is my visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Since then, I have been much more interested in what you might call dark tourism. The prison was dark and sad, but strangely beautiful. I could not get the experience out of my head.
I don't seek out dark stuff intentionally. I just don't avoid it. I want to see something interesting. I want to have my mind blown.
Underneath the city of Paris run a series of stone mines, where they got the rock to build the city. In the late 18th century, dead people were getting to be a problem. The cemeteries in the city did not have room to expand, so they started making mass graves. But soon these got full. There were charnel houses which also held the remains of people who had been previously buried and then exhumed to make room for the more recently deceased. It got pretty gross.
Eventually, the city opened three new cemeteries that were outside the central city, and then they decided to turn the old stone mines into an ossuary, a holding place for skeletal remains. It took two years to move all the bones. At first it was just a big jumble of bones, but someone got creative and organized them so they looked nice. Well, you know. Nice for a bunch of bones. They added tombstones and other decorations to give a bit of dignity to those interred there.
After descending a long spiral staircase, we walked around in some of the tunnels. There was a well of crystal clear water and a place where an old miner had carved a city into the rock. Finally, we came to a doorway, which said "Arrete! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort." Stop! Here lies the empire of Death.
femurs stacked on tibias, with layers of skulls in between. There were designs made of bones, from stripes to hearts and crosses. The bones were stacked about shoulder-high, and behind them was the rest of the skeletons, all piled together. The remains of six million people are in these tunnels. I can't say for sure if I'd ever seen a real human bone before, but I've seen a lot now. I saw the lines where the different bones of the skull meet. And I saw where other dark tourists had written their names on the skulls. I'd apologize to the dead for that, but they used to be people, too, and some of them were probably the type to deface an anonymous skull.
I realized later that what we had seen was a mass grave. Usually, our context for a mass grave is mass murder, where a group is seen as less than human and eliminated. Putting them all together in one big hole, nothing to identify or distinguish them completes the dehumanization. Yet here is a mass grave with no horrifying event to account for all the dead. No massacre, no battle, no plague. Just a solution to a logistical problem in city planning. It's downright banal.
I think what bothers us about mass graves is how thoroughly anonymous they are. There is no registry somewhere that lists the six million names that accompanied those skeletons. They're not even separated into individuals. So one person might be spread out all over the tunnels - an ulna here, a patella there, here a phalange, there a phalange. There is nothing to distinguish anyone from anyone else. Supposedly, Rabelais, one of the founders of modern literature, is down there, but you'd never find him amongst the blacksmiths and the millers and the bakers. From our modern, highly-individualistic society, it hurts the ego to think that we might end up all jumbled together with random people, nothing to commemorate our lives.
Except they're just bones, the only parts of us which survive decomposition. They are not us, because our bodies were never us, and a granite stone with an epitaph wouldn't change that.