Altogether Too Many Skeletons

A Short, True Story

Some Historical Context For How I Came To Piss Myself In The Paris Catacombs

The story of how I came to piss myself in the Paris catacombs begins, like the Broadway hit Les Miserables, in post-Napoleonic France. At the turn of the 18th Century, as the population swelled, overcrowding in Parisian cemeteries had led to a city-wide crisis. The amount of bodies that needed burying was, by a considerable margin, outstripping the amount of land to bury them in, and in response to this unhappy corpse to land ratio, some absolute weapon in the French bureaucracy decided to disinter all of the bodies currently buried and shove them into an abandoned limestone mine that ran under the length of the city. If you feel that haphazardly cramming a bunch of skeletons into a skeleton hole lacks that certain je ne sais quoi we’ve all come to expect from Parisians, well you’d be right, and a few years later, a man offered his services to artfully arrange the skeletons into something more visually appealing and because it was the olden times, people said absolutely do that. 

Once that was done, the place started receiving visitors. Initially, the privilege of gawping at a bunch of spooky bones was one reserved only for the rich and powerful, but soon enough, in the irrepressible French spirit of egalite, the fucked up skeleton cave was opened to the general public. Then, around 150 years after that, my girlfriend and I took the hundred odd steps down into the catacombs, and then, around 20 minutes after that, I pissed my pants. 

So now we’re all up to speed.

I knew I quite badly needed to piss before entering Paris Catacombs, I should probably make that clear. I just assumed - and I’ll acknowledge here that this assumption doesn’t hold up to a huge amount of scrutiny - that there would be toilet facilities somewhere in the catacombs. Let me state here, for the avoidance of doubt, that there are no toilet facilities in the Paris Catacombs.

There are, however, a great many skeletons.

An Aside Re: Skeletons

The thing about the catacombs is that they don’t fuck around when it comes to the skeletons. If there’s a mood or leitmotif that pervades the entire operation, it’s “altogether too many skeletons” . One of the difficulties I’ve had writing this, is trying to convey the sheer amount of skeletons in the place. The number given in guidebooks is six million skeletons, but the human brain simply can’t comprehend that amount of skeletons, possibly by design. Do an experiment now, close your eyes and try to imagine as many skeletons as you can in the one place. I’m telling you sincerely - you haven’t imagined nearly enough skeletons. Not nearly enough. The walls are skeletons, the archways are skeletons, the niches and altars, those are skeletons. It’s actually quicker for me to list the things that aren’t skeletons - the floor and parts of the roof. 

It’s possibly misleading to keep using “skeleton” here, because the remains in the Paris Catacombs aren’t arranged in the order made famous in “Dem Bones”, where the toe bone is connected to the foot bone and so on. What you get in the catacombs is a primarily femur and skull based experience. 

Nevertheless it’s confronting on both an aesthetic and philosophical level. After you’ve overcome the initial shock of rows upon rows of human heads lined up in a tasteful pattern, stupid fact dawns on you that each of these contained a brain, each contained, maybe, a soul, but at the very least each contained a life with all that brings with it. And it gives you a sort of calm terror. When Hamlet looked at Yorick's skull he was repulsed by the disconnect between the man he knew and loved and this thing in his hands and he said:

“Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

Or, as a counterpoint, this one star TripAdvisor review by Joelle D.

“Catacombs, Seen one skull, seen them all!”

Who’s right? We really can’t say. But one thing that both Shakespeare and Joelle would have to agree on is that there are no toilets in the catacombs. I hope I’m not harping on about this, but I now live by the maxim that the amount of human bones in any given location is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of that area having toilet facilities.

Eeeeeeeeeeeh, Or: The Noise The French Make When Estimating Something

Things were getting extremely serious, piss-wise, and I go in search of a guard. These guards stand at random intervals along the tunnels and look both bored and like a suspect in a budget Poirot production. Shoulders hunched, pencil moustaches to a man, ties askew, giving the impression of smoking without actually smoking. Standard Issue French people.

‘How much further to the exit,’ I ask.

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeh, 20 minutes?’

And back the way I came?

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh 20 minutes, as well. You are…in the middle.” 

“And if I run?”

“There is no running.”

It’s amazing how quickly the question of if you’re going to piss yourself in the catacombs can become, in the short space of a few extended French vowels, the question of how.

The Least Worst Option

How About In a Dark Corner?

This actually seems like a pretty good idea. Secret tunnels, by their very nature, have lots of little nooks and crannies, corners and alcoves in which to hide, or if you prefer, wee. The problem here is that all of those nooks, crannies, corners and alcoves - to a nook, cranny, corner and alcove - are made of the bones of real people, all Yoricks to a Hamlet somewhere. And your plan is to piss on their bones. 

A Quiet Part Of The Catacombs That Is Not Human Remains?

The structure of the tunnels means that line of sight is extremely limited. Even if you could be sure that a stretch of 20 feet was unoccupied, you can’t be sure that no one is about to come around the corner. Also, the puddle of wee is just going to spread out and get on the bones after a fashion so all you’re really doing is delaying the corpse-fouling process by a minute, tops.

What About One of the Bathroom Facilities in the Paris Catacombs?

As I’ve mentioned, there are no bathroom facilities in the Paris Catacombs.

What About In Your Own Pants?

This is least worst option.

I’m wearing black jeans and it’s dark, it is relatively discrete. When I return to daylight I can cover it with a coat. In fact, I come to convince myself that my underpants will probably take the brunt of the assault, and I can simply discard those when I emerge into daylight (here, I’ll later learn, I had underpants confused with nappies). 

And so here was my plan. I would piss my pants, but not a whole piss. This distinction somehow feels important, pride wise. I’d piss just as much as required to get to the exit and finish the piss in a proper piss venue - a toilet? In an ideal world, yes, but honestly, anywhere that wasn’t a crypt of human remains would do.

Of course, it’s very hard to just piss your pants a bit and so, despite the best of intentions, I piss my pants a lot. I piss my pants next to my girlfriend, the woman I’ll go on to marry in five years time, who will find out about this incident only after the ring is well and truly on her finger.

And while I piss myself a lot, I take in the rows and rows of skulls and reflect that our lives are just stupid moments like this, all stacked up on top of each other like a bunch kids in a trench-coat, making the rough shape of a life lived, and one day it’ll all be over and our bones will rest somewhere, nowhere near as grand as this, no where near as dramatic - but with toilet facilities within walking distance for sure - and none of this will matter. But for now, in that moment, it all does matter, it all matters so very very much.

This story was originally told at Story Club and then edited to make sense on the page.