Monday, 7 May 2012

Dealings with the dead - 1856

Project Gutenburg
The origin of the catacombs of Paris is very interesting, and not known to many. The stone, of which the ancient buildings of Paris were constructed, was procured from quarries, on the banks of the river Bièore. No system had been adopted in the excavation; and, for hundreds of years, the material had been withdrawn, until the danger became manifest. There was a vague impression, that these quarries extended under a large part of the city. In 1774 the notice of the authorities was called to some accidents, connected with the subject. The quarries were then carefully examined, by skilful engineers; and the startling fact clearly established, that the southern parts of Paris were actually undermined, and in danger of destruction. In 1777 a special commission was appointed, to direct such works, as might be necessary. On the very day of its appointment, the necessity became manifest—a house, in the Rue d’Enfer, sunk ninety-two feet. The alarm—the fear of a sudden engulphment—was terrible. Operatives were set at work, to prop the streets, roads, palaces, and churches. The supports, left by the quarriers, without any method or judgment, were insufficient—in some instances, they had given way, and the roof had settled. Great fear was felt for the aqueduct of Arcueil, which supplied the fountains of Paris, and which passed over this ground, for it had already suffered some severe shocks; and it was apprehended, not simply that the fountains would be cut off, but that the torrent would pour itself into these immense caverns. And now the reader will inquire, what relation has this statement to the catacombs? Let us reply.

Saint Botolph in the early morning
© Godric Godricson
For hundreds of years, Paris had but one place of interment, the Cemetery des Innocens. This was once a part of the royal domains; it lay without the walls of Paris; and was given, by one of the earlier kings, to the citizens, for a burying-place. It is well known, that this gift to the people was intended to prevent the continuance of the practice, then common in Paris, of burying the dead, in cellars, courts, gardens, streets, and public fields, within the city proper. In 1186 this cemetery was surrounded with a high wall, by Philip Augustus, the forty second king of France. It was soon found insufficient for its purpose; and, in 1218, it was enlarged, by Pierre de Nemours, Bishop of Paris. Generation after generation was deposited there, stratum super stratum, until the surrounding parishes, in the fifteenth century, began to complain of the evil, as an insufferable nuisance. Such a colossal mass of putrescence produced discomfort and disease. Hichnesse speaks of several holes about Paris, of great size and depth, in which dead bodies were deposited, and left uncovered, till one tier was filled, and then covered with a layer of earth, and so on, to the top. He says these holes were cleared, once in thirty or forty years, and the bones deposited, in what was called “le grand charnier des Innocens;” this was an arched gallery, surrounding the great cemetery.
Saint Botolph
© Godric Godricson
With what affectionate respect we cherish the venerated name of François Pontraci! Magnum et venerabile nomen! He was the last—the last of the grave-diggers of le grand charnier des Innocens! In the days of my novitiate, I believed in the mathematical dictum, which teaches, that two things cannot occupy the same place, at the same time. But that dictum appears incredible, while contemplating the operations of Pontraci. He was a most accomplished stevedore in his department—the Napoleon of the charnel house, the very king of spades. All difficulties vanished, before his magic power. Nothing roused his indignation so much, as the suggestion, that a cemetery was fullc’est impossible! was his eternal reply. To use the terms of another of the fine arts, the touch of Pontraci was irresistible—his handling masterly—his grouping unsurpassed—and his fore-shortening altogether his own. Condense! that word alone explained the mystery of his great success. Knapsacks are often thrown aside, en route, in the execution of rapid movements. In the grand march of death, Pontraci considered coffins an encumbrance. Those wooden surtouts he thought well enough for parade, but worse than useless, on a march. He had a poor opinion of an artist, who could not find room, for twenty citizens, heads and heels, in one common grave. Madame Pontraci now and then complained, that the fuel communicated a problematical flavor to the meat, while roasting—“c’est odeur, qui a rapport à une profession particulière, madame,” was the reply of Pontraci. The register, kept by this eminent man, shows, that, in thirty years, he had deposited, in this cemetery, ninety thousand bodies. It was calculated, that twelve hundred thousand had been buried there, since the time of Philip Augustus. In 1805, the Archbishop of Paris, under a resolve of the Council of State, issued a decree, that the great cemetery should be suppressed and evacuated. It was resolved to convert it into a market place. The happy thought of converting the quarries into catacombs fortunately occurred, at that period, to M. Lenoie, lieutenant general of police. Thus a receptacle was, at once, provided for the immense mass of human remains, to be removed from the Cemetery des Innocens. A portion of the quarries, lying under the Plaine de Mont Souris, was assigned, for this purpose. A house was purchased with the ground adjoining, on the old road to Orleans. It had, at one time, belonged to Isouard, a robber, who had infested that neighborhood. A flight of seventy-seven steps was made, from the house down into the quarries; and a well sunk to the bottom, down which the bones were to be thrown. Workmen were employed, in constructing pillars to sustain the roof, and in walling round the part, designed for le charnier. The catacombs were then consecrated, with all imaginable pomp.
SS. Peter and Paul, Knapton.
© Godric Godricson
In the meantime, the vast work of removing the remains went forward, night and day, suspended, only, when the hot weather rendered it unsafe to proceed. The nocturnal scenes were very impressive. A strange resurrection, to be sure! Bonfires burnt brightly amid the gloom. Torches threw an unearthly glare around, and illuminated these dealings with the dead. The operatives, moving about in silence, bearing broken crosses, and coffins, and the bones of the long buried, resembled the agents of an infernal master. All concerned had been publicly admonished, to reclaim the crosses, tombstones, and monuments of their respective dead. Such, as were not reclaimed, were placed in the field, belonging to the house of Isouard. Many leaden coffins were buried there, one containing the remains of Madame de Pompadour. During the revolution, the house and grounds of Isouard were sold as national domain, the coffins melted, and the monuments destroyed. The catacombs received the dead from other cemeteries; and those, who fell, in periods of commotion, were cast there. When convents were suppressed, the dead, found therein, were transferred to this vast omnibus.
During the revolution, the works were neglected—the soil fell in; water found its way to the interior; the roof began to crumble; and the bones lay, in immense heaps, mixed with the rubbish, and impeding the way. And there, for the present, we shall leave them, intending to resume this account of the catacombs of Paris, in a future number.

Project Gutenburg : Dealings with the Dead, Volume I (of 2)
Author: A Sexton of the Old School Boston 1856

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