Mar 242013
 

The Empire of the DeadIt’s not generally the done thing to put real people in to novels, not even if they are a mine of contradictions and character quirks that cry out to be fictionalised. Real people sometimes sue, for starters. Real places, on the other hand, are just ripe to be thrown in to fiction as and when a writer pleases. Some places more than others. Take, for instance, the catacombs beneath Paris.

When the Parisian municipal graveyard and associated charnel houses became so full as to constitute a public health hazard in the late 18th century, Alexandre Lenoir had the bright idea of using the abandoned stone quarries beneath the city, which he was in charge of strengthening and renovating, to solve the problem. It took two years for the initial transfer of bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents graveyard, carried across the city in hearses each evening accompanied by a procession of priests singing the burial mass. By 1814, the general inspector of quarries Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury decided to renovate them as a mausoleum, arranging the previously dumped bones along the sides of the passageways.

One of the engineers who worked on the original strengthening of the quarries sculpted miniatures of the fortress of Port-Mahon, where he had been held as a prisoner of war. He died when the staircase he was trying to build so that people could come and see his work collapsed on him.

Port-Mahon sculpturePort-Mahon sculpture

 

 

 

 

 

 

More than 6 million skeletons are laid to rest in the catacombs. Among them may well be Robespierre, Rabelais, Fontaine and Perrault.

Paris catacombs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris catacombsParis catacombs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Héricart de Thury took care to arrange the bones aesthetically, including plaques with appropriate poetry and markers indicating where in the city the skeletons had originated.

Paris catacombsParis catacombs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris catacombsParis catacombs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Macabre in the extreme, I will grant, but also begging to take pride of place in a fabulous book. I’d read it.