Spending Time Among the Bones of Paris's Catacombs

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Erin McCarthy

In Paris, what’s beneath the sidewalks is as exciting as the monuments that tower above them. The underground is a labyrinth of canals, crypts, vaults, reservoirs, and hundreds of miles of tunnels ripe for exploration. Some people who roam beneath the city are doing it illegally to repair neglected treasures, throw parties, or paint murals, but there are legal ways to explore the canals and crypts, too.

For a fee, access is granted to an approved section of les égouts—or the sewers—which Victor Hugo called "the conscience of the city" in Les Miserables. (To accurately write about Jean Valjean's trip through the sewers, Hugo called on help from his friend, sewer inspector Emmanuel Bruneseau.) Visitors with more macabre interests, however, can descend 65 feet underground, below the metro and the sewers, to walk amongst the bones of the dead in the famous les Carrieres de Paris—also known as the Catacombs.

Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort

Forty-five million years ago, a tropical sea covered the area that would become Paris. Over time, the sediment on the seabed became formations of limestone, which the Romans would mine when Paris was known as Roman Lutetia. Open quarry pits gave way to nearly 187 miles of underground tunnels, which provided the stone that built the Louvre and Notre Dame.

Eventually, the quarries were abandoned. But in the 18th century, they became the best solution to Paris’s growing public health problem.  

In the late 1700s, the mass graves at cemeteries like Saints-Innocents in Paris’s Les Halles district were overcrowded with bodies. Improper disposal of corpses led to unsanitary conditions that contributed to the spread of disease.

To save the living, authorities shut down Saint-Innocents and, in April 1786, began relocating the remains buried in the cemetery to the Tombe-Issoire quarries, which had been blessed and consecrated for the purpose. Transferring the bones from the Saints-Innocents Cemetery—the largest in Paris—took two years. Between 1787 and 1814, bones were transferred from other Parisian cemeteries; the final transfer of bones took place in 1859.

A number of notable people buried in those cemeteries likely had their bones transferred to the Catacombs. The list includes writers Jean de La Fontaine (Fables) and Charles Perrault (known for fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots), painter Simon Vouet, and architect Salomon de Brosse (who designed the city's Luxembourg Palace). During the Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs. Guillotine victims ended up there, too, including the likes of Maximilien Robespierre, Antoine Lavoisier, and Georges Danton, all beheaded in 1794.

The Catacombs hold the artfully arranged remains of 6 to 7 million Parisians. Above the entrance to the ossuary, carved into a stone, are the words “Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort.” Stop, this is the empire of the dead.

Taking a Tour

The Catacombs opened to the public in the early 19th century. Visitors enter on Avenue Rene Coty and descend 130 steps to the former mines, where a truly spooky, interesting journey awaits.

The walls of the narrow corridors that lead to the ossuary are marked with the names of the streets and historical information. Visitors will pass through "The Workshop," an area of the former quarry featuring stone pillars that support its ceilings.  

Next is the Port-Mahon corridor, which features sculptures created by a quarryman named Decure. The corridor is named for the sculpture of the Port-Mahon, above; Decure, who had fought in the armies of Louis XV, may have been held captive at the fortress by the English. Visitors will also pass the Quarryman's footbath (below), which was uncovered by workers and used for mixing cement.

And then comes the ossuary. The sheer amount of bones in the former quarries is staggering. Though the bones inside are artfully arranged now, it wasn't always that way; at first, they were simply thrown inside. But around 1810, Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries, had the bones organized. (Behind those facades, the rest of the bodies were piled in heaps stretching back to the cavern's walls.)

In addition to these artfully arranged bones, visitors can see a number of interesting things, including commemorative plaques, a sepulchral lamp used by quarrymen to make air circulate through the corridors, a cross and an altar, a spring called Fontain de la Samaritaine, and a single tombstone (it belongs to Françoise Gellain). Two features of the ossuary disguise structural reinforcements: Gilbert's Tomb, which features a verse from the poet (who is buried elsewhere), and a barrel-shaped display of skulls and shinbones in the Crypt of the Passions. (On April 2, 1897, two workers let in scientists, scholars, and artists for a middle-of-the-night, very secret concert held in the crypt. When their identities were discovered, the workers were fired.)

Workers are scattered throughout the Catacombs to answer questions, but mostly, visitors walk alone or with companions through the dimly lit, damp, nearly-silent space. The rules when wandering the catacombs are simple: Respect the final resting place of these Parisians. Look, but don't touch. Don't leave your mark at all, especially with graffiti. It might be tempting to snag yourself a souvenir from this most unique of attractions, but bags are searched for bones at the exit. If you're still looking for something to commemorate your visit, there's a gift shop just across the street.

All photos by the author.

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October 10, 2013 - 8:00am
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