Thursday, October 18, 2012

October Haunting - The Empire of the Dead

The sign reads:
"HALT! This is the Empire of the Dead!"

Haunting places are all around us; we hear voices, see apparitions and get cold chills. These forms of a haunting are normally associated with a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere or the thousands of cemeteries where thousands of souls have come to rest. Therefore, to assume that a "house", cemetery and a middle of nowhere underground area would have unimaginable haunting, creepiness and just plain scary feelings, is putting it mildly.

Cemeteries have always been the hangout for those who seek adventure as well as those who have zero respect with desecrating the final resting place of loved ones. The thought of disturbing a grave is quite chilling as well as taboo in many cultures. In fact, it is considered a sin and a sign of future curses for many societies, which brings the question to mind, what were the builders of the catacombs in Paris thinking as they built wall after wall of human bones?

Under the city of Paris lies 300 kilometers of interweaving caves and tunnels dating back to 60 B.C.E. when the Romans begin digging up the exposed limestone. The only problem was the more the dug, the weaker the cities land became up until the eighteenth century when the weight of constructed buildings were collapsing into the hollow ground below. In 1777 it was determined the tunnels below the city were to dangerous to continue building atop them and a decision had to be made of either closing sections off or filling them in. At the same time the Parisians were also experiencing an overflow of the graveyards with over thirty generations of buried remains, the cemeteries were becoming to full for the burial of future generations.

Families were paying the priests to bury their deceased in the church cemeteries, the priests not wanting to refuse the money continued to arrange for the deceased to be buried in overflowing cemeteries. Over time, the priests opted for the construction of a house of sorts for the dead, known as Charnier or mass grave where the deceased remains continued to accumulate. Over time, the city grew, as did the cemeteries, to the point of the ground being well over ten feet above the streets. The odor was horrendous as well as the townspeople experienced many bodies falling into the streets due to broken walls from the weight of the bodies. The residents began dying from the disease of the corpses known as pestilence, which meant more bodies and nowhere to bury them.

With no relief in sight for the increased amount of human remains, the Catacombs were created in 1785. They began with the emptying of one cemetery and relocating their bones to the maze of hallowed out tunnels, which solved two problems at once, filling in the tunnels and making room in the cemeteries. Each quarry of tunnels would soon have supporting walls built of human bones; the first was called "Carnere de la Tombe Issoire.

Behind the entrance sign that reads "Here begins the Empire of the Dead" there are bones of approximately more than six million humans stored, stacked and "walled" in various sections of the catacombs. Walls expand from six to eight feet in height with human skulls and bones designed with ornate and elaborate designs of crosses, hearts and other unique designs.

The sections of the tunnels vary greatly in the shape of the sections as well as the intricate designs made of bones. Some areas have the bones stacked on the floors in piles requiring anyone who enters to walk and/or crawl on the remains of thousands upon thousands of those discarded to the tunnels. The remains were "dumped" through a 20-meter hole as workers moved, stacked and rearranged in an attempt to provide somewhat dignity to those who were sent to the afterlife of tunnels. One would have to imagine the designs and gentle stacking in various parts were the workers way to pay respect to the bones owners by creating beautiful works of art out of their remains.

Throughout the Catacombs are markers to signify the cemetery in which the bones were transported from as well as the date in which they were moved. The earliest placed marker was dated 1785 and the latest dated 1859. This is the last marking and it is not known if there were later "deposits" making the underground area of Paris streets stocked with a minimum of seven decades of human remains.

There are only a few sections that are open to the public for tours, however, there are numerous passageways and "secret" entrances into the areas outside of the usual tourist tours. Though many have come through the tunnels and said a silent prayer for the unknown owners of the bones used in historical architecture, there have also been those who among the secret passages, floors of bones and walls of skulls were areas for cults to gather and societies to speak to the dead. There were many nighttime torch lit fantasy parties organized by the Count of Artois where he created hell on earth. The tunnels were also a well-hid hiding spot for members of the resistance during WWII to avoid detection of the Nazis.

There are no names given to the deceased, no recognition of status and no birth or death date. There are murderers from during the French revolution and German soldiers combined in one chamber. While another may have the wealthy with the poor, a killer with victims or the old with young. One would be hard pressed not have a haunting encounter while in the tunnels. The Catacombs are most definitely for the faint of heart as many visitors have reported to hear voices, be touched and on occasion feel as though they were being strangled. It would actually be surprising to not hear of cold spots, whispers and touching from an area where millions of souls were left unnamed and called upon by those delving into the unknown. There have been instances where tourists unaware of what were ahead of them entered only briefly and left quickly swearing to never return. For those seeking an unforgettable journey into one of the most haunted places in the world, be prepared to trek through puddles of mud, water and crawl upon the bones of unknown souls.

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