Keep calm and remember everyone will die.
That's what the world's most nihilistic coffee mug read—a quirky souvenir at the Paris Catacombs gift shop. Everyone will die. Remember. Everyone. Will. Die.
If you're anything like me, you don't need a coffee mug to remind you that everyone will die, including your own insignificant ass. Fear of death has always been a major driver in my life. It's like in one of my all-time favorite movies, Moonstruck, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. Olympia Dukakis, who plays Cher's mom in the movie and is a goddamn queen, asks, "Why do men chase women?" and when met with some bullshit answer from an older, skirt-chasing professor (played by John Mahoney, the dad from Frasier), she answers, "I think it's because they fear death."
Death, as the movie explains, is the reason people (the movie pinpoints men, but I think this goes for all people regardless of gender) relentlessly pursue love and sex. But really, doesn't that reasoning apply to anything? Why jump out of a plane? Why eat this whole pizza? Why go on a years-long cross-country trip? Why slip your number to that cutie at the grocery store? Why quit your corporate job to follow your dream of being a performance artist that smears shit on your face? Because I'm going to die someday so I must push myself to the limits of extreme experience so I don't feel like I missed out on anything when the bell tolls for me.
From the moment we are born, we start experiencing death all around us. Some more so than others, many in horrifically tragic and brutal ways. I watched my dad draw his very last breath and the life leave his eyes in a hospital emergency room. It's not an image that leaves me, and only exacerbated my fear/fascination with death.
That fascination and fear is what led me to the Catacombs of Paris on a recent vacation to the City of Light. In case you aren't a weirdo that enjoys delving into Internet wormholes on the world's creepiest places, the Catacombs of Paris are a 200-mile network of tunnels located 65 feet underground. For reference, that's roughly the size of a five-story building. The Catacombs serve as ossuaries, or resting places for the dead, for more than six million people. No caskets. Just stacks of remains piled high and deep, arranged in intricately designed collections that serve as walls within the tunnels.
I waited in line for two-and-a-half hours to get into the Catacombs. The woman standing in line complained to her husband, "I have never waited for anything for this long in my life." I've been well trained in the art of waiting patiently for an uncertain amount of time thanks to the Tijuana border. I came prepared with a full belly, a coke and a book. Amateurs.
Once I got to the front and bought my ticket, I began descending the stairs to the Catacombs. I had forgotten about my intense claustrophobia and anxiety. With each step I felt my heart race and my eyes well up in tears. My chest felt heavy.
I stopped after the first set of stairs and stepped to the side to allow myself room to freak out. People walk past me and I gave them a wave. "Don't mind me. Just having a panic attack. Totally cool." One couple offered to let me join them so I wouldn't be alone, which was very sweet. Being alone didn't scare me and neither did the dead bodies I was about to see. But the idea of being so far underground with limited escape freaked me out to what felt like no end. Death.
Eventually I reasoned with my anxiety, telling it that taking the metro was also underground. This is not that much different. Yes, it is! This is totally different. I know, but not really? Shh, just go with it.
I made my way far, far down into the depths of Paris. For most of the journey down and through the tunnels leading to the ossuaries, I was completely alone. I couldn't even hear far off voices. It was me, a dank, cold wet smell and nothing else. Then I saw a sign showing a skull and hand with the red Ghostbusters symbol over it (which Google tells me is called the "no symbol," but "Ghostbusters symbol" describes it in terms I understand). The dead were approaching.
I stepped passed a stone passageway and there they were—rows and rows of human skulls and bones. They were piled high above my head, staring down at me from their empty eye sockets. Standing on my tippy toes, I could see the piles of bones stretch at least 20 feet deep in some areas. The empty skulls stared straight on. These were living, breathing people once. And now they were just another skull in a stack. I took out my phone for a selfie.
I walked down hundreds of yards of hallways made of remains and eventually came up some stone plaques with French inscriptions. One of them surrounded by the leg bones of hundreds of people stood out.
Omne crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum. Croyez que chaque jour est pour cous le dernier.
Google tells me this translates to: Believe every day which dawns on you is the last: the hour you do not wish to see will be a great and unexpected pleasure.