I see dead people

South of the Seine, deep below the 13th and 14th arrondisments of Paris is an extensive network of tunnels making up what were once the quarries from which the limestone and gypsum used to build the churches and palaces and other buildings of the city were quarried. From the 13th century until the eve of the French revolution, vast quantities of stone were dug out and brought to the surface. Today: a visit to those quarries.

In the late eighteenth century, a series of cave-ins led the government to establish a department to inspect, map, and reinforce the mines. As the reinforcement walls were built, they were marked with the names of the streets 20 m above.


Here you can see the reinforcements along a passage connecting two levels of the mine.


But as fascinating as all that is, what really draws the tourists is slightly more macabre than medieval rock quarrying. At the same time as the government was dealing with the collapsing mines underground, closer to the surface the graveyards in the city had reached the point where they could no longer handle the volume of bodies being interred. (The practice was to bury the bodies in mass graves in the churchyard, closing a grave once it was full and starting another. When the bodies had decayed, the grave would be opened, the bones removed to a charnel house at the side of the cemetery, and the grave reused. Look at me filling in stuff you could look up on Wikipedia…) The solution settled on was to close the cemeteries in the city and move the remains into a section of the abandoned quarries consecrated to that purpose.


At first the bones were just piled in the mineshafts, though in the early nineteenth century it was decided to arrange the bones more artistically.


The skull, femur, and shin bones compose the walls, with the remaining bones and fragments piled in behind. Plaques indicate the origin of the remains in each section. Other plaques are inscribed with lines of poetry or biblical texts.


Homo, sicut fenum dies ejus; tamquam flos agri, sic efflorebit: quoniam spiritus pertransibit in illo, et non subsistet, et non cognoscet amplius locum suum.

This goes on for the better part of a kilometre. In all, the bones of some six million bodies are interred here.


So much for the commoners. (Though the remains of several famous Parisians are there as well. It’s very difficult tell who’s who at this point.) Next, up to the unlovely northern suburbs of the city to visit the Basilica Saint-Denis. Into these regions (and others in Paris and around the western world), the architects of the twentieth century poured all of their resentment, contempt for beauty, and hatred of humanity, in the form of raw angular concrete.

IMG_20150110_130050 But I digress. The Basilica itself, built in the middle ages. (Reference to the middle ages is of course now used most often as a term of abuse to imply something crude or unsophisticated or cruel.)


It’s being renovated at the moment.


The freshly cleaned limestone contrasts sharply with the the centuries of grime on the sections they haven’t got around to yet. The church is the final resting place of nearly all the kings and queens of France from the 7th century until Louis XVIII.


Here’s Pepin the Bref and his wife Berthe, or as Charlemagne would have known them, mom and dad. The first of the Carolingian dynasty, he deposed the last of the Merovingians, who had become rather useless, tradition dictating that they not do anything but ride around the kingdom in an ox cart, getting fat, and letting their hair grow.


That’s Pepin’s father, Charles Martel at the back, famous for winning the Battle of Poitiers. Though never actually king, as the maire du palais, by the end of his life he was the de facto ruler of France.


There really are a lot of these statues – gisants, in French – arranged all around the apse of the basilica. Around the time of the renaissance, they became quite elaborate.


The bodies themselves were at one time interred in coffins in the crypt below the church.


Under the revolution, the remains were removed from the church as part of the whole desecrate the monarchy fad. When the monarchy was restored, the remains were placed back in the crypt in an ossuary.


On the topic of the revolution, here’s the heart of Louis XVII.


If you’re still reading, one final shot of the stained glass, and we’re done. (It’s really much better in real life, the colours are a bit washed out in the photo.)


Voilà. C’est tout.