Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Catacombs as a Mass Grave

The theme of Friday's adventures centered around exploring the verticality of the city of Paris.  As a city with a history of strict regulations on the height of the buildings and fewer "gratte-ciels" than most moderately-sized American cities, one wouldn't think that there is much to learn in terms of the verticality of Paris.  However, the "dessous de carte" reveals that the verticality does not begin at the street level such as that shown on a map, but literally underneath the streets.

Twenty meters underneath the ground, located in the old and abandoned stone quarries, lays the remains of roughly 6 million Parisian Catholics.  Taken from various overflowing cemeteries in the city in the late 18th century, the catacombs became the world's largest mass grave.  The catacombs were more than simply a repository for the dead; they became a place of worship, part of the ceremonies of the Catholic Church.  Along the tour route, there are altars carved into the stone.  Here, Catholics priests held Mass amongst the living and the dead. 

During this exploration of “L‘Empire de la mort”, I began to ponder the concept mass grave.  From my experience in the United States, death is treated as a very personal and individual event.  Tombstones are used to immortalize graves, or an ancestor’s ashes are preserved in various forms.  The catacombs seemed to be the exact opposite of these traditions, where remains were placed anonymously, thus creating sense of slightly morbid equality.  

Although the catacombs were born out of necessity, they eventually became used as a place of worship.  Churches have always been closely associated with death and the afterlife, both spiritually and literally.  However, it is interesting to think that the catacombs allowed the possibility of Mass being held in the midst of the graveyard.  Here, the catacombs and the church become one.  Thus, the catacombs are truly and Mass grave, in both senses of the word.

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