Saturday, July 21, 2012


"He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 1

I know as an American tourist I'm supposed to "oh la la" at the skulls and bones in the Catacombs. But my initial impression left me comparing and contrasting the ethical practices of preservationists in France and the United States.

I don't believe as a preservation major you could walk through the Catacombs and not instantly think of NAGPRA. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act prevents the displacement and looting of Native American burial remains within the United States. A government-sanctioned law, there is a very powerful stress on the professional obligations of archaeologists to treat human remains with respect. In the United States, the interpretive narrative of the deceased is largely focused on the individual, or the culture of the individual. So strong is the emphasis on the tactful handling of burial remains in the United States, that the Catacombs are both startling, and fascinating to the American preservationist. 

Originally a stone quarry, the Catacombs were constructed as a storage alternative for the dead when the city's communal pit ceased to be an effective method. For all intents and purposes, the Catacombs is a tourist attraction. The bones and skulls of thousands of deceased Parisians have been haphazardly arranged into ornate wall decor. 
I cite NAGPRA for the difference in cultural attitudes about grave repatriation, and the ethical handling of human remains. The Catacombs have effectively objectified the bones of the deceased through their arrangement as art. Does the lack of a narrative story and human identification for the millions of bones in the Catacombs justify their dehumanization? Opinions on the presence of the Catacombs are fairly split. 

Traversing down to the depths of the quarry, you'll find Americans, Parisians, and Marilyn Manson enthusiasts under the streets of Denfer-Rouchereau. To me, the Catacombs are too detached from the humanity that was once supported by this bizarre form of ornamentation. It is hard to not walk through its winding passages and not think of all the beautiful people.

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