Paris is a city where one can enjoy most every aspect of life; from delightful meals, sunny afternoons, fulfilling conversation, thought-provoking art, scenic views, and a rich history to enjoy, time in Paris is indeed time well spent. With the history of Paris expanding back to the time of the Ancient Romans, there are many ghosts of the past that linger in the city today. These ghosts, whispers of those who were here before, are not always easily detected by the common eye. Still-standing structures such as bath houses, walls, and churches are more obvious examples. But those who are privy to a more intimate knowledge of the city are aware of a far more literal example of Paris’ ‘ghosts’. The Parisian Catacombs are located 20 metres below the primped and paved streets of Paris. At this depth, a constant cool temperature is maintained, ensuring visitors find the experience chilling in more than one way. The catacombs have a complicated history; the dark and disturbing installation was ironically created in order to promote the health and well-being of Parisian citizens. Try not to hold your breath as we descend into the unique and fascinating history of this hidden treasure of Paris.
A city with extensive history is a city with extensive graves. Corpses, bodies from times past, buried in multitudes within the city when the expansion of Paris to the extent seen today was inconceivable in comparison to the time periods of those buried. Problems began to arise when various weather conditions caused the spilling over of corpses onto now developed properties. This instance occurred in 1780 at Les Innocents, and pushed the government of Paris to do something to both fix and prevent the mess from happening again. Paris was already home to a sprawling expanse of over 800 hectares of tunnels beneath the city that were used for the extraction of building materials to aid in constructing the city. Cemeteries, specifically Les Innocents, began to be emptied into the tunnels in an orderly fashion around 1785-6. The project ended up taking 12 years, and the body count amounted to over 6 million. Reaching almost as far back into Parisian history as can be traced, the oldest bones moved belonged to the Merovingians, a people who inhabited Paris after the Romans. The catacombs come back into play via the realization of a Haussmannian city during the reign of Napoleon IIId. It had been deemed the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” in 1768. The movement of bones to the catacombs ended officially in 1860. They were complete with both bones of old and bones of new, including Revolutionary icons Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre. The catacombs were a successful attempt at improving the health of the city and allowing neighborhoods to live without fear of bodies popping up onto their lawns. They also became a popular and unique symbol of Paris, and provide an unforgettable visitor experience.
Visitors to the catacombs will encounter a relatively uniform display of the skulls and bones that rest there. No one skull clearly belongs to another body. An effort seems to be made to keep the space organized and respectful, yet the bones are strewn carelessly behind the ordered facade of skulls. The air is still, and quarters are tight. You must walk carefully as to not brush against a bone of some sort. The sheer number of bodies that lie within the catacombs is difficult to comprehend. A cemetary seeks to hide death; it is what humans are comfortable with and used to. In the catacombs of Paris, death stares you right in the face.
So now, when walking the streets of Paris, don’t forget to look down; for more lies beneath than the eye can see!