The Catacombs of Paris are an underground ossuary that holds the remains of about 6 million people. It fills a renovated section of caverns and tunnels which are what remains of Paris’s stone mines. Opened in the late 18th century, the underground cemetery has become a tourist attraction, as well as a place of interest for urban explorers.
Up to the 18th century, Paris buried the dead on holy ground of nearby parish cemeteries, among which Saints Innocents was the most desirable. In time, however, the overburdened cemetery became a source of disease and contamination. A plan was devised to move the remains into the abandoned mines. This is how the catacombs of Paris came to be.
Be warned. Prepare for a tale of woe and horror, and most unsanitary of sanitary conditions. For in order to truly appreciate and understand the Catacombs of Paris, we must venture into the realm of a medieval city. Have you seen the film “Perfume: The story of a Murderer” by Tom Tykwer? Or better yet, have you read the book by Patrick Süskind on which it was based? If so, can you imagine the smell of a populous city? Because it must have been even worse than that.
Since Roman times, Paris buried its dead on the outskirts of the city, but habits changed with the rise of Christianity and its practice of burying its faithful in the consecrated ground under and around its churches, no matter their location. By the 10th century many of Paris’ parish cemeteries were well within city limits, and eventually some, because of their central location in dense urban growth, were unable to expand and became quite overcrowded. An attempt to remedy this situation came in the early 12th century with the opening of a central mass burial ground for those not wealthy enough to pay for a church burial. Depending on the St. Opportune church near Paris’ central Les Halles district, this cemetery had its own Saints Innocents church and parish appellation by the end of the same century. Eventually Paris’ other churches adopted the technique of mass inhumation as well. Once an excavation in one section of the cemetery was full, it would be covered over and another opened. Residues resulting from the decaying of organic matter, a process often chemically accelerated with the use of lime, entered directly into the earth, creating a situation quite unacceptable for a city whose then principal source of water was wells.
By the 17th century the sanitary conditions around Saints Innocents were unbearable. As it was one of Paris’ most sought-after cemeteries and a large source of revenue for the parish and church, the clergy had continued burials there even when its grounds were filled to overflowing. By then the cemetery was lined on all four sides with ‘charniers’ reserved for the bones of the dead exhumed from mass graves that had ‘lain’ long enough for all the flesh they contained to decompose. Once emptied, a mass sepulchre would be used again, but even then the earth was already filled beyond saturation with decomposing human remains. A series of ineffective decrees limiting the use of the cemetery did little to remedy the situation. Once again, can you imagine the horror? The diseases that spread easily throughout the densely populated Paris? (Not to mention, the benefits of frequent bathing were not discovered until the 19th century. In fact, it was believed that washing too often could be detrimental to one’s health.)
Part of the reason nothing was done about Paris’s untenable burial practices was the lack of ideas for disposing of the dead exhumed from the city’s intramural parish graveyards. The government had been searching for and consolidating long abandoned stone quarries in and around the capital since 1777. It was the Police Lieutenant General overseeing the renovations, Alexandre Lenoir, who first had the idea to use empty underground tunnels on the outskirts of the capital to this end. His successor, Thiroux de Crosne, chose a place to the south of Paris’ ‘porte d’Enfer’ city gate (the place Denfert-Rochereau today), and the exhumation and transfer of all Paris’ dead to the underground sepulchre began in 1786. From the eve of a consecration ceremony on the 7th April the same year, behind a procession of chanting priests, began a parade of black-covered bone-laden horse-drawn wagons that continued until 1788. In work overseen by the Inspector General of Quarries, Charles-Axel Guillaumot, the bones were deposited in a wide well dug in land bought from a property, ‘La maison de la Tombe Issoire’, and distributed throughout the underground caverns by workers below. Also deposited near the same house were crosses, urns and other necropolis memorabilia recovered from Paris’ church graveyards.
Meanwhile, it was decided to create three new large-scale suburban burial grounds on the outskirts of the city, and to condemn all existing parish cemeteries within city limits. The new cemeteries were created outside the central area of the capital in the early 19th century: Montmartre Cemetery in the north, Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east, Passy Cemetery in the west. Later, Montparnasse Cemetery was added in the south.
In the past the catacombs served as a refuge for vagrants, revolutionists, anarchists, fugitives, and a variety of people who fought the law and, as is often the case, the law won. In 1871, communards killed a group of monarchists in one chamber. During World War II, Parisian members of the French Resistance used the tunnel system. Also during that period, German soldiers established an underground bunker in the catacombs below Lycée Montaigne, a high school in the 6th arrondissement. Bodies of the dead from the riots in the Place de Grève, the Hôtel de Brienne, and Rue Meslée were put in the catacombs on 28 and 29 August 1788.
Today, although the catacombs are a place of the dead, they are not a dead place. They are mostly viewed by tourists whose entrance is perfectly legal. However, there are some visitors who are not so law-abiding. The catacombs are especially popular among urban explorers. (However, infiltrating the closed-off Mines of Paris is supposedly even more adventurous than illegally entering the catacombs themselves.) This unofficial branch of urban explorers, specialising in the underground Paris, even has its own name: they are called the cataphiles.
Only a small part of an extensive network of underground tunnels, which spans around 280km (174 miles) in length, is open to public. Although some tunnels have plaques indicating the name of the street above, it is easy to get lost. Some passages are low or narrow, others are partially flooded. There are aging telephone wires, pipes, and such.
The catacombs in their first years were mainly a bone repository, but were later transformed into a real and visitable sepulchre on par with any mausoleum, with skulls and femurs carefully arranged and fragments of tombstones complementing the walls of bones.
The main entry to the catacombs is situated in the western pavilion of Paris’s former Barrière d’Enfer city gate. After descending a narrow spiral stone stairwell of 19 meters to the darkness and silence, broken only by the gurgling of a hidden aqueduct, and after passing through a long (about 1.5 km/1 mile) and twisting hallway of mortared stone, visitors find themselves before a sculpture that existed from a time before this part of the mines became an ossuary, a model of France’s Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector. Soon after, they would find themselves before a stone portal, the ossuary entry, with the inscription ‘Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort’ (‘Halt! This is the Empire of Death’).
Beyond begin the halls and caverns of walls of bones. Some of the arrangements are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias; another is a round room whose central pillar is also a carefully created ‘keg’ bone arrangement. Along the way one would find other ‘monuments’ created in the years before catacomb renovations, such as a source-gathering fountain baptised La Samaritaine. There are also rusty gates blocking passages leading to other ‘unvisitable’ parts of the catacombs – many of these are either un-renovated or were too un-navigable for regular tours.
In a cavern just before the exit stairway leading to a building on the rue Dareau (former rue des Catacombes) above, one could see an example of the Quarry Inspection’s work in the rest of Paris’ underground caverns: its roof is two 11-metre high domes of naturally degraded, but reinforced, rock; the dates painted into the highest point of each bear witness to what year the work to the collapsing cavern ceiling was done, and whether it has degraded since. These ‘fontis’ were the reason for a general panic in the late-18th-century Paris, after several houses and roadways collapsed into previously unknown caverns below.
To this day, the catacomb walls are covered in graffiti, the oldest of which date from the 18th century.