A few days ago, I went to Paris and the trip was bounded at each end by visits to two places of the dead, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise and the Paris Catacombs under the city. Here the bones of many ancient cemeteries were deposited after being dug up from their pits in church graveyards, the ancient population of Paris rehoused in picturesque arrangements. Femurs are tightly piled on top of each other to form walls, (a macabre dry bone walling) and the skulls lined up on top or set in patterns. A tablet fixed on each section declares the church from which they came. The skulls gave off a brown sheen; look closely and on each could be seen the pattern of the cranium plates; many were broken, many were small, most indistinguishable from each other. Once the beginning of the ossuary was reached, the bone barriers snaked around for hundreds of metres; only the churches changed. The initial pathos of seeing them wore off after a while, another path, another wall of the dead. Sometimes an appropriate aphorism in Latin or French would add some interest to the journey.
It took some effort to remind myself that each of these skulls once sat atop a fleshy body and walked in the world. That this broken head half hidden at the back in the gloom of a shadowed alcove once laughed, spoke, coughed, thought, ate, belched and held opinions. All identity had been lost in this great democracy of the dead. Never was an idea made more real than here, that we are levelled and equal in death; was this the riposte to the vanity at the other end of Paris, in the great cemetery of Père-Lachaise with its monumental shrines, and family tombs, and painted glass and sorrowing statues? After all, the dead in their houses were just as much devoid of any sniff of the person who had lived as the jumble of ribs and heads and legs and arms in their humid tunnels.
What the city of the dead at Père-Lachaise had was memory. The name of each family is carved above each little house, those beautiful and ornate and maybe slightly ridiculous sepulchres, like lovely lines of toilet cubicles or beach huts. Their plaques and flowers and mementos are explanations of who the people were who lie beneath. The peoples collected together in the catacombs may not have been buried originally with much ceremony but it is unlikely that that would have thought this would one day be their fate. They would have hoped their names would survive, perhaps ready for their descendents’ descendents to come seek them out. If they had remained where they were buried, then their future families could at least wave a hand over a specific sod and say, “this is where my great, great, great, great grandmother Mathilde was buried”. Now Mathilde’s head could be anywhere in the darkness of the catacombs, as it once was lost in the ditches of the graveyard, undignified in death for hundreds of years.
Family history is in part about remembrance and part about connection. We identify, we connect and then we remember those who came before us. Are the lines in a parish register or a law suit or in a newspaper enough for this purpose? Should all our genealogical journeys eventually lead to the grave where we can sigh over the story we have resurrected. Does it matter that the actual remains of our dear departed ancestors might be forming a decorative motif, cheek by joint with some unrelated human? Bones are not holy relics and we should not engage in ancestor worship. Still, there was a joy in the individuality of the mouldering mausoleums of Père-Lachaise and an awful poignancy in the underground mass graves of six million Parisians. As family historians, we remember the person and distinguish them, raising them from the generality into which they have been commonly placed and then forgotten. No individual is remembered in the catacombs, just the building of its walls and there is a lesson there-that we need all the help we can, to do the dead the honour of remembrance.