“So are you coming?” asked my father as he started to slowly descend the spiral stairs into the dark hidden area below the Pisa cathedral. I hesitated for a moment as the curiosity of what was below collided with the fear caused by my imagination.
“They’re just inside large-decorated marble and stone boxes,” my father explained trying to convince me. “No way,” I replied.
While I waited for my father to resurface I walked around relived that I had escaped the experience of being chased by resurrected decomposing priest and rich monarchs buried in those roman sarcophagi below. I walked around the large cathedral staring up at the large frescos and vaulted ceiling. Then, I reached a black marble alter and froze in awe. There it was: the very thing I had just said no to. A tall glass-paned sarcophagus with a spotlight on a skeleton of an important priest.
“Is that real?” I asked one of the workers. They politely smiled and replied in Italian, “Si, guarda i piedi.” “Look at the feet?” I thought puzzled.
There they were the white long skinny bones of a human foot peaking out from the decorative sheet covering the rest of the body. I was so distracted by the ornate golden mask placed over the skeleton’s face that I had missed the truth. Now I was staring intensely at this body inside a display case waiting for it to animate. I walked away intrigued at the fact that this skeleton was displayed like some kind of show, while all the others were hidden underground. If death was so prominently displayed out here than something much darker must be in the crypt kept out of sight.
Several years later I stood at a large dark green entrance at the top of a spiral stair case. “So are you coming?” asked my friends excited by the thought of heading down below the streets of Paris. “Of course!” I said. This was my chance to finally see what I had missed in Pisa and stare 200 year old death in the face. Surely by now I was old enough to not be terrified by dead bodies in old boxes, besides these bodies had been dead for so long that all that should be left was bone.
The tour began in small white rooms whose walls were covered entirely with information and photographs of the catacombs. This served as a last point of calm. As you stepped out of the last room into the low ceiling path of the catacombs there was a feeling of having less oxygen in a cramped space and nothing but darkness ahead. Our feet crunched on the gravel-covered floor. We passed two large columns painted black and white and reached a marble doorway with the inscription “Arrètte! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.”
I pointed up and told my friends, “Well, I guess we are entering The Empire of Death.” “That is terrifying,” replied one of the girls as she walked slowly through the doorway. “No way!” a friend ahead of us in the path exclaimed, “Come look at the skulls.”
As promised past that doorway were innumerable bones perfectly staked against both sides of the path. Some stacks were taller then most of us and seemed to be perfectly organized in layers arraigned by bone type. Farther down the path we reached slightly bigger sections of the catacombs, which were still covered in bone stacks, but this time there were designs: crosses, hearts and arches all made up of precisely placed remains. “The poor workers who had to move all these bones from the cemeteries must have been pretty bored down here,” I said to my friends who were inspecting the designs more closely. “I guess,” one of them replied seeming a little disgusted. “What if they did this on purpose? Maybe this place was meant to be visited,” replied my other friend who was trying to get a good picture of one of the designs.
We continued on the path which got smaller again and surprised you every so often with a pitch black opening beside you were anything could be waiting to grab you. We were nearing the end now, but there was one last surprise. Carved into the left portion of this limestone path was a large scale and very detailed model of what looked like a very expensive French chateau. This perfectly lit museum quality display reminded me of that glass paned black marble sarcophagus in Pisa. Death was on display above and below here too without any reservations.