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The Catacombs of Paris: A Rotten Slice of French History

Welcome to Paris, the city of love and home to iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre-Dame. I bet you’ve heard of those places. I also bet you’ve probably not heard of the Catacombs of Paris. Read on if you dare!

It’s no surprise that this little chunk of history isn’t really famous, overshadowed as it is by the other French landmarks that attract millions of tourists every year. After all, the city’s reputation as the romance capital of the world could be tainted if everyone knew that Paris sits directly on top of another city – the city of the dead.

The inscription above says 'Stop! This is the empire of the dead.'

Okay, I say city but it’s not actually a city. The catacombs are a network of limestone tunnels, hundreds of miles long, situated around twenty metres beneath the streets of Paris, and home to over 6 million corpses. Although they’ve been used in various capacities (mostly limestone mining) since Roman times, it was their use during the late 18th century onwards that really put the catacombs in the limelight.

During late antiquity, cemeteries were located on the outskirts of Paris, away from populated areas, but as the city grew over the centuries, these cemeteries were absorbed within it. By the late 18th century there were hundreds of overcrowded, unsanitary cemeteries in Paris, holding the remains of millions of Parisians from as far back as the Middle Ages, including the victims of wars, poverty, the Black Death (aka the Plague) and other epidemics. Due to the lack of space, newer bodies were buried on top of older ones, while others were left in mass graves and ditches outside cemetery walls. The lands around churches became improvised cemeteries, littered with graves, and with more burials happening daily, there seemed to be no end to this crisis. Paris was well and truly flooded with the dead.

What’s really nasty is that people were living very close to the dead, which was — aside from ewww — a huge public health risk, particularly when heavy rains came along. There are records of Parisians complaining about the unbearable smell (rotting meat has a particularly pungent, gag-inducing stench) and how even their food and water was polluted by the putrid smell of decaying bodies. Illnesses and accidents occurred often, though it wasn’t until a particular accident in 1780 that the government began to take action.

At the time, the Cimetière des Innocents was the biggest and oldest cemetery in Paris, which meant it was also the worst, but I guess up until then it was easier to play ignorant because what happened next was definitely un-ignorable and worthy of triggering a city-wide gag fest. In May 1780, after months of heavy rain, the underground walls in the basement of a house next to the cemetery collapsed and... well, you can imagine the vomit-worthy contents that spilled into the room. The walls were simply not strong enough to stand against the wave of hundreds, if not thousands, of old bones mixed with newer, still-rotting bodies. More of the same happened in other houses around the cemetery too. A few months later, in September 1780, a law was passed that banned burials in the Cimetière des Innocents and all other cemeteries in Paris. This resulted in the construction of new cemeteries outside the city limits.

In 1785 the government ordered the destruction of the Cimetière des Innocents and its church – but what about the millions of dead that were buried there?! It was decided that the bones would be moved to the disused mining tunnels beneath the city, and this process was repeated with the other cemeteries in Paris. Moving millions of dead people wasn’t an easy task, especially when so many of them hadn’t decomposed properly. Bodies had to be boiled to get rid of any remaining flesh, while the fat (yes, actual human fat) was used to make soaps and candles. Every night, for several years, the bones would travel through Paris in black-veiled carts to the catacombs, their final resting place.

Initially, the bones were just left down there disorganised but after 1810 the catacombs were transformed into a large, orderly tomb. The bones were classified and arranged in elaborate patterns and structures (including a heart shape!) which remain to this day. Though the catacombs weren’t open to the general public, some of the most famous and privileged visitors were allowed special access. Throughout the 19th century, visiting arrangements changed frequently, ranging from complete closure to limited access and finally, in the early 20th century, they were opened to the public for good. So if you’re ever in Paris and are intrigued by the idea of being surrounded by millions of dead people, be sure to visit the catacombs!

I visited the catacombs in April 2016. Check out my photos

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