Here Amidst These Bones

Earlier month, I visited the Paris Catacombs, a municipal ossuary housed in underground quarries. The largest of its kind, this site is neither for the superstitious nor for the faint of heart.
Situated twenty metres below ground, the ossuary contains the remains of millions of Parisians, transferred there gradually between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries as graveyards were being closed because of the risk they posed to public health. The first of these was the cimetière des Innocents graveyard in 1786 in what is now the district of Les Halle
In the long maze of dark galleries and narrow passages, visitors can see a tableau of death with bones arranged in a macabre display of high Romantic taste. The alexandrine verse "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort" [Halt, this is the realm of Death] above the entrance to the ossuary is just one of an extensive series of maxims, poems and other sacred and profane passages giving pause for thought during the tour. 
As my travel companions and I picked our way through the dank warren of bone, we each took refuge in separate pockets of silence. Normally a lively group, we spread thin through the tunnels, quietly contemplating the macabre scene while pondering mortality and the human condition.

At least, I assume that's what we were pondering. Given the demographics of our group, however, it's likely that at least one person was thinking about lunch, while someone else imagined the catacombs as a perfect setting for an episode of Doctor Who.

Toward the end of the trip, I rounded a corner and suddenly found myself at the start of a long corridor of bone, eyes dilating as I stared toward the vanishing point.

Standing there among the bones, I tried to imagine the skulls as they were in life: clothed in flesh and wrapped in skin. I imagined them not piled in an indiscriminate maze-work, but recognizable as souls made in the image of God: individual souls with distinct personalities, goals, dreams, worries, and fears. Souls who lived, worked, and loved in a high-stakes world, leveraging their hopes for the future against the everyday grind. 

When they pondered their own mortality, did they ever considered themselves in a final resting state such as this: completely dismantled and rebuilt into a public and impersonal wall of bone?

That seems unlikely.

As I climbed the stone steps back toward the daylight of Paris, I felt highly aware of the bones beneath my skin, anchoring my muscles and leveraging me toward the surface. 

I considered the frailness and brevity of existence, thankful for even a brief space of life and motion here amidst these bones.  

* * * *

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us... always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

(2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.

For the perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.

(I Corinthians 15:26-27, 53-58)


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