Renowned as the city of love, Paris is one of the planet's most iconic capitals. Home to centuries of art, culture, and history, it's the city where you can see the Mona Lisa, visit the Moulin Rouge, and re-enact countless Godard films. Beneath its glorious exterior, however, lies a dark past. For visitors willing to venture underground, a fascinating and gruesome sight awaits. The Catacombs of Paris are the final resting place of more than six million people, and they’re open to the public.
For centuries, major cities have faced the problem of what to do with their dead. With land a precious commodity, it was seen by many as wasteful to dedicate expansive free space to cemeteries. In the early settlements of Paris, the dead were either taken to the outskirts of town or laid to rest in specific areas allotted for worship. For many centuries, the most prominent cemetery in Paris was Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (Holy Innocents' Cemetery), named after the church to which it was attached.
But as time passed and Paris expanded, the bodies began to overflow and space was ever tighter. The sheer weight of the growing mass graves would eventually collapse the wall of a basement adjacent to Les Innocents. Corpses spilled out of the hallowed ground of Les Innocents and onto neighboring properties, terrifying the locals. To make room, those who had been dead the longest were exhumed. Their remains were packed into the roofs and walls of "charnier" galleries built inside the cemetery walls.
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That too began to overflow and increasingly became an issue as the decades passed. The putrid smell of decomposition became overwhelming. In 1763, King Louis XV issued an edict banning all burials from occurring inside the capital. Further action was hindered by the powerful protests of the Church, which did not want the cemeteries to be moved or disturbed in any fashion. It took until the late 1700s for officials to greenlight the creation of large-scale burial grounds.
Yet this solution did not account for the overflowing dead of the centuries past. They still needed a place to rest. Towards the end of the 18th century, a plan was formulated. The vast underground mines of Paris had existed since the 13th century, yet were no longer in use. The abandoned tunnels actually remained a major risk to the public, with one accident occurring in 1774 in which the street above a tunnel collapsed hundreds of feet.
King Louis XVI named a commission to inspect the mines, which run about five stories deep, and figure out what to do with them. It was decided that a small part of the mines would be renovated into tombs for the remains of the Parisian dead who had become displaced.
It would take 12 years for the city to move the remains, which they did under cover of nightfall. At first, the catacombs were essentially disorganized dumping grounds for random bones and remains, but Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, worked to transform the area into a mausoleum where people could visit and pay their respects to the dead.
Bones and skulls were pressed into the walls, creating a spooky welcome. He also added a room to display the various minerals mined from the city over the centuries, and another to show off deformed skeletal remains discovered during the renovation process. Tablets and archways with ominous warnings were placed throughout.
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The overall effect was one of deliberate solemnity and gloom. This was a place to remember death, but also to be awed by the pure spectacle of it. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by thousands of real skulls peering blankly at you as you pass by. Visitors entering the catacombs have to walk underneath a haunting inscription: "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" Translation: “Stop! This is the empire of death!”
Over the centuries, the allure of the Catacombs of Paris has only grown. In its opening days, the catacombs were a curiosity for wealthy Parisians who were admitted only in small groups a few times a year with the permission of an authorized figure. For a while, they were closed off entirely to visitors after the church opposed the idea of human remains being a public spectacle. That didn't last long, and eventually, as the decades passed, the catacombs turned into one of Paris's go-to tourist spots.
In 2015, Airbnb even paid €350,000 as part of a publicity stunt offering customers the chance to stay overnight in the catacombs. For lovers of the macabre, it's a must-see experience for obvious reasons, one that’s unlike anything else. For the morbidly inclined tourist traipsing through Paris, there are additional sites of interest, such as the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the city's largest cemetery and the final resting place for the likes of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Édith Piaf, among others.
For those who aren’t planning a trip to Paris anytime soon, you can still take a virtual tour of the catacombs. From the comfort of your couch, you can browse some of the most iconic parts of the tombs in stunning detail. While you won't be able to see all 200 miles or so of the vast tunnel network, only part of which is home to the ossuaries, you can get a peek into the fascinating depths of one of the world's most unique sights. The Paris Catacombs are a potent and enduring reminder that things may change with time, but death remains a constant for us all.
Sources: Les Catacombes de Paris, Smithsonian Magazine