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Contemplating Mortality in les Catacombes de Paris

Kelsey and I paid a visit today to les Catacombes de Paris, an underground collection of the bones of countless Parisians. (Official site here. English information here.)

As I understand it, with few exceptions, bodies interred in Parisian cemeteries were dug up after 300 years to make way for new burials. The bones needed to be relocated, and so were deposited neatly in underground spaces already excavated during rock quarrying operations.

The bone collections are located deep below the surface, at the end of a half-mile walk down narrow tunnels, reached via a descent on a cramped set of spiral stairs. The walk there was enjoyable in a spirit of adventure and curiousity. What I wasn't prepared for was my reaction to the actual collections themselves.

Les Catacombes de Paris

I've never felt so confronted by mortality as I did among the bone collections today -- not when I visited my dying father in the hospital; not when I saw the body of my aunt, whom I loved deeply, in her casket; not when I helped at the scene of a fatal accident many years ago.

There's something about the sheer scale of the collections that makes plain the inevitability of death. I find this interesting, because death on a large scale -- from an earthquake, a tsunami, or even genocide -- often makes it more difficult to appreciate the loss. Most of us feel such loss most keenly when we can identify with specific individuals. The catacombs operate differently. An individual corpse can be explained away -- but 10,000 remains? 100,000? A million? Many millions? How can we hope to escape that fate?

I had an inner debate about this. The optimist in me says not to worry, that technology will come through. The realist in me says to look around and acknowledge the inevitability of death.

That inner debate continues, and probably will for many years. But I'm reasonably sure that the ultimate answer involves making the most of the time I have, whether that's another 40 years, another 400 years, or until I get hit by a car during my run on the Paris streets tomorrow morning.


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