When it comes to history, cities and sightseeing, why are we so fascinated by death? It seems whenever I research a city I’m visiting, beyond the obvious castles, museums, town squares and theatres, many city highlights tend to come back to the dead. Going to Edinburgh? Head to Greyfriars graveyard and the (purportedly) haunted vaults. Prague? Make the journey outside the city to the Sedlec Ossuary, or bone church, its interior strung with garlands of skulls and other human bones.
And Paris? The list is long. Those drawn to this side of history can wander the Père Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, visit Napoléon in his resting place at Invalides, stumble across commemorative plaques across the city marking the homes in which famous names passed away, or descend into the sinister Catacombes.
Perhaps it’s the drama of the unknown that draws us to monuments and historic sites marking the dead. Perhaps it’s about respect, a desire to remember those who came before us. Perhaps it’s the universality of death, its common inevitability, that allows us to feel connected to a place, and its people, that are otherwise foreign to us. Perhaps it’s simple, gruesome curiosity. Whatever it is, these museums and monuments keep us coming back.
One of those places is the Panthéon, the stunning Latin Quarter monument. Beneath a majestic dome visible across the city, this one-time temple-turned-church-turned-crypt is one of the grandest buildings in Paris. On the ground floor, directly below the soaring dome, the Panthéon is all high walls, sumptuous neoclassical artwork and glittering marble floors, where public funerals for celebrated French figures occasionally take place.
But underground, things get even more interesting. Here, between pale sandstone walls, you’ll find the sarcophagi of many of France’s most valued individuals. Here lie Hugo, Voltaire, Curie, Zola, Rousseau and more. Which makes me think of another reason we might gravitate towards cities’ grand tombs when we visit: to be near greatness.