Temperatures are dropping as fast as the gold-stained leaves that crunch beneath our feet, filling the air with the fragrance of autumn. Sedate men selling warm chestnuts balance their shopping cart roasters at metro entrances. Fall has fallen on Paris and with Halloween just around the corner, it is the ideal season to explore the city’s darker side.
The Catacombs are a macabre storage depot 20 meters below street level; a maze of femurs, ribs, and skulls are arranged, stacked, and aligned, evoking an exhibition of Art Naïve. The aging bones of 15th century literary luminaries Rabelais and Jean de la Fontaine entwine with 18th century revolutionaries Robespierre and Danton, sitting among the remains of six million other Parisians, all of them originally buried in city cemeteries that were reclaimed as land for the living.
The first known Gothic cathedral, the medieval Basilique Saint-Denis, is another home of the ancient dead, but here rest those of noble birth, who lead aristocratic lives before they met their ends. Sunlight streams through soaring stained glass windows, casting a rainbow of light on ornate, recumbent statues that mark the resting places of the Kings of France. The Good King Dagobert – Pipin before Broadway fame – and the Louis, Henris, and Philips that once ruled France rest here beside their queens, including those who lost their heads and arrived long after their demise, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
France’s most illustrious rest in the heart of the city, at the epic Pantheon, where Émile Zola lays below Foucault’s pendulum, just meters from Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire, and Pierre and Marie Curie.
There are more modern necropolis within the city as well. Père Lachaise is the most famous, with pilgrims flocking to hold vigil at Jim Morrison’s tomb, or leave a lipstick kiss Oscar Wilde’s grave. Montparnasse cemetery is the place to head for funerary art, including Constantin Brancusi’s masterpiece “The Kiss” and the larger-than-life sculpture of Monsieur and Madame Pigeon, snug in their brass bed, their namesake birds leaving their mark as they fly above. Sunlight dapples the resting place of eternal expats Samuel Beckett, Brassaï, and Susan Sontag, while metro tickets honoring his hit song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, litter the tombstone of the original hipster, Serge Gainsbourg. More metro tickets can be found at the Montmartre cemetery, chez François Truffaut, in hommage to his movie, Le Dernier Metro. This monument to urbanization, at times below street level, is also the eternal resting place of Degas, Dumas, and Sasha Guitry.
The infinitely less famous, and ultimately more peaceful, cemeteries of Passy, Vaugirard, and Saint-Vincent in Montmartre house lesser names, though General Lafayette is buried in the Picpus cemetery, surrounded by mass graves of decapitated victims of the French Revolution. RIP.
Paris Catacombs – Place Denfert-Rochereau, 1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris. Tel: +33 (0)1 43 22 47 63
Basilique Saint-Denis – 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis. Tel: +33 (0)1 48 09 83 54
Panthéon – Place du Panthéon, 75005 Paris. Tel: +33 (0)1 44 32 18 00
Père Lachaise Cemetery – 16 Rue du Repos, 75020 Paris. Tel: +33 (0)1 55 25 82 10