Between February 2004 and February 2005 I wrote twenty six freelance articles for Francophile internet magazine Bonjour Paris + one article with Karen Fawcett (President) and Sarah Gilbert Fox (Directeur Général), which was published in the guide-book, “Paris For Dummies.” Here is one of the original twenty six, with the original self-penned lead…

Death In The Afternoon: The Catacombs

Pat Brien takes you on a Tour of Cemetery Montparnasse, which holds some of the most colourful and controversial of the deceased artists, philosophers, writers, performers, anarchists and Feminists who lived the history of Paris, before descending into the dark and murky labyrinth of the ancient and awesome Catacombs.

I’d heard of the Paris Catacombs several times, but something about this dark, winding labyrinth, buzzing with small electric lights, throwing shadows against cold, grinning skulls, leading to huge open spaces filled with still hundreds more vacant, gaping eyes, unknowing and unseeing, piled together, cramped and condemned, raising only questions and never revealing answers, reminded me too much of French bureaucracy, so I had always avoided it.

But I eventually hardened to French bureaucracy and softened to the idea of a trip to the Catacombs. Deciding on a visit to nearby Cemetery Montparnasse, as a sort of warm-up (if you’ll pardon the expression), I took the best of the metro stop choices: Edgar-Quinet, Line 6, coming out onto Blvd. Edgar-Quinet. A few steps South along the Blvd and I was standing awkwardly at the main entrance.

Entering and turning right, I was confronted by the first of many small temples, filled with crucifixes and holy figures, pretty picture-windows and flowers. I was almost moved to tears by the fact that the space inside was almost the same as that of my studio apt. But I felt a little strange standing in front of someone’s tomb and mourning myself, so I moved on.

Simone Beauvoir

Just past this is the modest resting place of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and writer Simone Beauvoir. Sartre apparently lived the last few decades of his life on nearby Blvd. Raspail, making the immortal thinker a home-body in all senses of the word.

A genuinely touching aspect of the grave of Sartre and Beauvoir is a dedication (larger than that to either Sartre or Beauvoir), to the memory of a 17 year old girl called Sohane, a French girl ofAlgerian origin, who was burned alive in 1984 for refusing to follow some kind of religious or cultural law (a dress-code, according to one helpful mourner).

Beauvoir is described in the plaque as a writer who wrote for the freedom of women, and Sohane as a martyr who died for it. It is very touching and strange to consider that a philosopher, a writer, and an activist, are still working together from the grave towards a common goal in Paris.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Knowing nothing of philosophy, I had always had a soft spot for Sartre because of his classic one-liner: ‘Hell is other people,’ a statement as exquisitely simple as it is painfully true.

Charles Baudelaire

Just ask a cool British guy called Sebastian, who I hooked up with and talked at for a period of hours on my first visit to the graveyard.

I will never forget some of the looks we received as we stood in front of Charles Baudelaire’s grave discussing ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer.’

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

But apart from Satre, Montparnasse holds yet another of the one-liner kings, Proudhon, the anarchist thinker who came up with the immortal: “Property Is Theft!”

To be honest, I never really understood that one. What if you rent? What does that make you? A liberal? As for Proudhon’s final property, ironically enough, I couldn’t find it.   The map I was viewing (a signpost at the top end of Avenue de l’Ouest), was clear enough, and the sections were clearly signposted, too, but I didn’t get there.

In truth, I was only interested in seeing if anybody had sprayed an Anarchy sign on his tomb, or in the hope that some fan-club nuts might have paid to have one painstakingly carved into a headstone.

All the thoughts of Anarchy somehow led me straight to the grave of Serge Gainsbourg (Division One, along Avenue Transversale). Serge’s grave was bedecked with photographs of the great man, along with metro-tickets, cigarette’s, and even flowers. I don’t know much about Serge either, only that he seems to have been loved for being unlovable, which is a pretty good trick.

Serge prepares to be late for his own funeral.

Apart from Serge, Sartre, Proudhon, Baudelaire, you will also find here the Fascist Pierre Laval, executed for treason, car-maker André Citroen, César Frank, and a famous victim of French anti-Semitism at the end of the nineteenth century, Captain Dreyfuss. Some of the graves and temples are amazing, some of the sculptures astounding, like the huge hand over the grave of one Robert Thibier, who was probably the sculptor.

Unfortunately, the name wasn’t listed.

Anyway, having spent some time wandering around, staring at the head-stones and into the temples, I was left with a feeling that the Montparnasse philosophy dictates that just because you’ve been dead for a few hundred years, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look good.

And with that, I was ready for…

Serge, made to rest, I mean laid – no – Oh yes, sorry, laid to rest.

From Cemetery Montparnasse, you only need turn right at the main entrance and hook back onto Blvd. Raspail, then follow it down to Pl. Denfort Rochereau, face a giant statue of a lion, and look to the building in front and to the left of it’s left nostril! It’s that simple. Or get off the metro at Denfort-Rochereau, Line 4, and use sortie ‘rue Denfert-Rochereau’, which will leave you standing directly opposite. The Catacombs are open Tue-Sun 10.00-4.00.

I was amazed by the queue. I had expected to see a few people milling around, of course: a grumble of tourists smelling a photo-opportunity with death, but I was greeted by a queue stretching a long way back. It looked more like the crowd for the Louvre; the Mona Lisa lovers.

‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘Maybe they buried her here? Maybe they’ve got her skull on display and I’ve missed all the snappy adverts: “Meet Mona In The Catacombs! Wonder At The Mystery Of That Toothy Grin! Fitted With Realistic Hair! Photo’s 10 E’s.”


Yes, it was the tourist crowd. Somebody somewhere was making a fortune from selling bright orange shirts and trousers that were neither long nor short, just stupid.  All those little family groups. The women and children suffering meekly under the enforced enthusiasm and cross-eyed leadership of the dominant males. The crappy camaraderie.

I heard one guy telling his partner: “I don’t care what the guide-book says! I spoke to an actual French man!” I realized then that life is so much sadder than death. I put my shades on, to protect my eyes from the blaze of orange, and looked down the queue. ‘Maybe they’re here to be buried?’ I thought hopefully. But they weren’t, and I knew it, so I joined them.

One woman was freaking out because a spider had found it’s way onto her. Odd, considering that she was about to descend into one vast, dimly-lit, grinning pit of death. So we waited. Then we went in, paid our five euros, and began descending the steep, narrow, winding stairway to the Paris Catacombs.

After a long, dull start, in which minding your step on the rough ground and minding your head on the low ceiling, takes up most of your thoughts along some ancient, extremely narrow passageways, you come to a large, circular opening, then the skulls start.

Say ‘French Cheese’ honey!

Walls made of bones, interlaced with grinning skulls, some lit, some half-lit, some with shadows creeping over them, searching out the deep eye-sockets. Dates on plaques. The ancient dead. More skulls. Some chest-high bone walls showing how far back these Catacombs go.

Thousands of dead; a sea of bones, the odd skull sitting atop; some tilted in the half-light, looking for all the world like the fleshy, bald heads of living men. They did live once. All of them. You know that. They walked around above, dreamed, laughed, played it out, schemed and struggled until their turn was over. Now they were here.

I preferred them to the tourists, somehow. In fact, I stopped and waited until the low orange grumble had faded to dark, silence, and I found myself alone, just me and the dead. I soaked it up.

It felt good. Peaceful. Here were the real dead of Paris. Old bones even before they were so rudely dug up, probably already forgotten, and dumped here back in 1785.

These were the guys and girls who knew what being dead and gone was really all about. Here death actually was the great leveler, not like in Montparnasse Cemetery, with all its poseurs, its unsophisticated and fashion-conscious nouveau-dead, like Citroen and Laval, demanding attention and maudlin sentiment.

Here was a real community of corpses. Their own skulls were their tombstones; their bones piled beneath them, testifying to the fact that they once stood and walked in the sun.

The labyrinth wasn’t really a labyrinth. It was low and claustrophobic in places, dripping water and wet underfoot here and there, but there was no way to get lost.

For me, there was still a way out. And the tourists were long gone. They had collected all the drama they needed for all the phone-calls they were going to make, for letters they were going to write, and I had collected all the information I needed for the article.


I said goodbye to the dead and started making my way back up towards the light, towards a nice guy who would check my bag to make sure I hadn’t stolen a skull (to stick a candle on the next time I sacrifice a goat?).


He would then smile and point me out towards a street I had never seen before in my life, where I would be blinded by the sun and the blaze of slow moving orange grumble.

Oh well, C’est la vie!

Les Catacombs, Place Denfort-Rochereau, 75014, Paris. Telephone :   Entrance : 5.00 euros. Call for discount information.

Entrance: Place Denfort-Rochereau. Exit: Rue Remey Dumoncel. Turn right and continue along to Avenue Du General Leclerc. Turn right again to head back towards Place Denfort-Rochereau.