Crypts beneath the city streets.
Catacombs have always seemed distinctly Roman to me. When I imagined touring underground crypts as a child (yeah, I was one of those kids) I thought it would be within the confines of the Vatican.
It never crossed my mind that I might end up visiting the catacombs of Paris first. Hell, I didn’t even know that Paris had catacombs.
I stumbled upon this bit of information when researching my first trip to Europe — a three-day whirlwind with my dad. He visited France frequently and made up a list of things to show me in Paris, but he wanted me to contribute to the itinerary as well. He told me to try and find a few places he may not have thought to visit before.
Teaching my dad the art of the selfie in a Parisian cafe.
I took to the internet, searching for unique things to do in Paris that my dad may not have thought of himself. Eventually, my hunting led me to what would be the creepiest experience of our trip.
Exploring the Catacombs of Paris
When we first arrived at the entrance to les catacombes, my dad and I were almost entirely alone. This was a stark contrast to the many museums we had visited in Paris, where we were surrounded by a constant stream of tourists.
The sense of isolation persisted as we discovered that the trip into the catacombs is designed to be self-guided. No one would be leading us through the dark tunnels, telling me what to expect. It was just me, my dad and the dead.
Trying to ignore our nerves, we descended down a long spiral staircase that was slick with humidity. Down and down we went, and I suddenly found myself wondering when Paris had last experienced an earthquake. We were thoroughly surrounded by rock.
The stairwell deposited us in a room filled with text panels, explaining the unique story of Paris’ catacombs and how they came to be, then led us into the catacombs proper.
The History of the Catacombs of Paris
The story is quite different from that of the more familiar, Roman crypts.
In Italy, many catacombs are connected to the church, and bodies were laid out in underground pallets. Often, wealthy and influential families would have private catacombs where they entombed their dead. Roman catacombs are also old — the earliest are thought to have been constructed around 200 AD.
By comparison, the catacombs of Paris are practically infants, established in the late 1700s as a solution to overpopulated cemeteries.
As a young city, Paris made the early mistake of putting its burial grounds front and center, rather than putting them on the outskirts of the city. As Paris grew, more people died and were in need of burial, but the cemeteries had nowhere to expand.
The short-term solution? Exhume the bodies and bury the bones in the walls of nearby buildings (referred to as intra muros burials), then start over again with the newly-vacated soil.
Mad props to the early Parisians for ingenuity, but as you can imagine it didn’t work out so well in the long term.
By the end of the 18th century, the central burial ground was a two metre high mound of earth filled with centuries of Parisian dead…
Of course, centuries of reusing the same burial grounds eventually became problematic. All of that disease and famine, plus the continual need for new real estate, became a real problem. Additionally, the buildings were becoming overwhelmed by the weight of the bones in their walls — to the point where some began to collapse.
Finally, Paris decided to do something about it.
The solution came in the form of abandoned mines and quarries. In their first life, these tunnels and caves provided the stone that built the city of Paris. When the cemeteries of Paris began to overflow, the quarries took on a new purpose.
Following an extensive survey, it was decided that the mines would be re-purposed into an underground mausoleum. This was an incredibly time-consuming project, involving the relocation of literally thousands of skeletons that had been packed into any and every available square inch.
A tunnel of bones.
Over the course of more than two decades, the catacombs were created and transformed from a dumping ground for piles of bones to an almost artistic project. Femur bones were stacked neatly, one on top of the other, forming walkways decorated with grinning skulls. Shrines were developed, and Paris’ dead found their final resting place.
Walking Among the Dead
The end result was the extensive labyrinth my dad and I had found ourselves in. It was surreal, walking down alleyways that were flanked by bones, hovering so close that I could not stretch my arms out in some places. The neat piles reached as high as my shoulders, and I found myself staring, eye to eye-socket, at the ancient skulls.
There was nothing to distinguish one body from the other; femura and ulnae were stacked upon one another in tidy little piles, topped by rows of nearly identical skulls. Here and there a bone had been lifted from the neat piles, or a skull was missing from its designated spot, a grave-robber’s souvenir.
As we ventured deeper through the macabre alleyways, we occasionally would come across a bit of scrawled French writing, or an altar built for the dead. In these places the bones were arranged artistically.
It felt strangely intimate, wandering among the remains of Paris’ former residents, the wealthy and the poor stacked side by side. I realized with a shiver that these were people. Real people. People with lives and lovers and hopes and fears. They were the peasants and lawmakers and clergymen that formed the backbone of Paris for hundreds of years. It seems like an obvious thing, but sometimes even the obvious is profound.
As it says over one of the altars: “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort.”
Halt, this is the realm of Death.
All of the information below is accurate as of November 2015. If you are visiting via Metro, exit at the Denfert-Rochereau stop.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 10am – 8pm. Last entrance at 7pm.
Address: 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris
Telephone: 01 43 22 47 63
Tour: Self-guided, unless you attend one of the events. Audio guides are available in French, English, Spanish, and German for an additional €5