There is the beautiful City of Light, then there is the other City of Light, yes, I am talking about Paris, France. The beautiful, art, architecture and the culturally important Paris, above ground. And just a mere 130 steps is all you need to enter the macabre and confining world of the underground Paris where art, architecture and culture also exist. It is here that you will find The Catacombs of Paris or Catacombes de Paris, if your speaking french; where it is reported that there are more than 6 million people interned under the streets of this beautiful city. I think when you say the word Catacomb, most people know what your talking about, but they are actually called underground Ossuaries. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may have also read a couple of posts I put up about The San Francisco Catacombs in Lima, Peru and Catacombs de Priscilla of Rome, Italy; if not, just click on hyperlinks to read those stories as well.
Although I have only ventured through 3 Catacombs around the world, each one has been significantly different, which is fascinating to me. Just walking through them excites me, it gets my mind racing with so many questions, Who are these people? Why are they here, in this location? Who determines where they are placed? How did they die? Why are they arranged artistically? And why is there a Catacomb at all?
In the case of The Catacombs of Paris it is important to start with the last question first, Why is there a Catacomb at all?
Prior to 1810 the Paris catacombs were known as Paris’ Montrouge stone quarries. The official name today for the catacombs is L’Ossuarie Municipal. Although this cemetery covers only a small section of underground tunnels comprising “les carrieres de Paris” (“the quarries of Paris”), Parisians today often refer to the entire tunnel network as “the catacombs”. It is said that there are more than 180 miles of tunnels that are used for the Ossuary, only a small portion is open to the public today.
Although located south of the former city gate (the “Barrière d’Enfer” at today’s Place Denfert-Rochereau), it is quite easy to miss the entrance as it rests in a small, non descript green metal hut like structure, and a very small sign that is wearing away on the sidewalk. It is easy to get to by the Metro, in fact just hop on line 6 and exit at Denfert-Rochereau and you will see the green building directly across the street. The ossuary holds the remains of about 6 million people and fills a renovated section of caverns and tunnels that are the remains of Paris’ stone mines. Opened in the late 18th century, the underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1874.
Since Roman times, Paris buried its dead on the outskirts of the city, but habits changed with the rise of Christianity and its practice of burying its faithful in the consecrated ground under and around its churches, no matter their location. By the 10th century many of Paris’ parish cemeteries were well within city limits, and eventually some, because of their central location in dense urban growth, were unable to expand and became quite overcrowded. An attempt to remedy this situation came in the early 12th century with the opening of a central mass burial ground for those not wealthy enough to pay for a church burial. Depending on the St. Opportune church near Paris’ central Les Halles district, this cemetery had its own Saints Innocents church and parish appellation by the end of the same century. Eventually Paris’ other churches adopted the technique of mass internment as well. Once an excavation in one section of the cemetery was full, it would be covered over and another opened. Residues resulting from the decaying of organic matter, a process often chemically accelerated with the use of lime, entered directly into the earth, creating a situation quite unacceptable for a city whose then principal source of water was well water.
By the 17th century the sanitary conditions around Saints Innocents were unbearable. As it was one of Paris’ most sought-after cemeteries and a large source of revenue for the parish and church, the clergy had continued burials there even when its grounds were filled to overflowing. By then the cemetery was lined on all four sides with “charniers” reserved for the bones of the dead exhumed from mass graves that had “lain” long enough for all the flesh they contained to decompose. Once emptied, a mass sepulchre would be used again, but even then the earth was already filled beyond saturation with decomposing human remains.
A series of ineffective decrees limiting the use of the cemetery did little to remedy the situation, and it wasn’t until the late 18th century that it was decided to create three new large-scale suburban burial grounds on the outskirts of the city, and to condemn all existing parish cemeteries within city limits. The new cemeteries were created outside the central area of the capital, in the early 19th century: Montmartre Cemetery in the north, Pere Lachaise Cemetery in the east, Passy Cemetery in the west. Later, Montparnasse Cemetery was added in the south.
From the eve of a consecration ceremony on the 7th April the same year, behind a procession of chanting priests, began a parade of black-covered bone-laden horse-drawn wagons that continued for years to come. In work overseen by the Inspector General of Quarries, Charles-Axel Guillaumot, the bones were deposited in a wide well dug in land bought from a property, “La maison de la Tombe Issoire”, and distributed throughout the underground caverns by workers below. Also deposited near the same house were crosses, urns and other necropolis memorabilia recovered from Paris’ church graveyards.
The catacombs in their first years were mainly a bone repository, but Guillaumot’s successor from 1810, Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury, oversaw the renovations that would transform the underground caverns into a real and visitable sepulture on par with any mausoleum. In addition to directing the rearrangement of skulls and femurs into the arrangement seen in the catacombs today, he used the tombstones and cemetery decorations he could find (many had disappeared after the 1789 Revolution) to complement the walls of bones.
Upon entrance of the Catacombs is a series of a long, winding staircase, then onto a long, winding corridor of mortared stone, visitors find themselves before a sculpture that existed from a time before this part of the mines became an ossuary, a model of France’s Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector.
Soon after, they would find themselves before a stone portal, the ossuary entry, with the inscription Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort (‘Halt! This is the Empire of Death’).
Beyond, begin the halls and caverns of walls of carefully arranged bones. Some of the arrangements are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias; another is a round room whose central pillar is also a carefully created ‘keg’ bone arrangement.
These were done out of reverence for those long Dead. Every wall is packed to the ceiling and stacked 10 feet deep with skeletons. The anonymous bones of long forgotten people, placed without prejudice. The skulls of servants atop those of their masters, revolutionaries side by side with aristocrats.
Along the way one would find other ‘monuments’ created in the years before catacomb renovations, such as a source-gathering fountain baptised “La Samaritaine” because of later-added engravings. There are also rusty gates blocking passages leading to other ‘unvisitable’ parts of the catacombs – many of these are either un-renovated or were too un-navigable for regular tours. There is a beautiful Foot Bath that was used to access a water supply during the building of the Ossuary.
In a cavern just before the exit stairway leading to a building on the rue Dareau (former ‘rue des Catacombes’) above, one could see an example of the Quarry Inspection’s work in the rest of Paris’ underground caverns: its roof is two 11-metre high domes of naturally degraded, but reinforced, rock; the dates painted into the highest point of each bear witness to what year the work to the collapsing cavern ceiling was done, and whether it has degraded since. These “fontis” were the reason for a general panic in late-18th-century Paris, after several blocks of houses and roadways collapsed into previously unknown caverns below. During World War II this series of underground caverns were used as hideaways for members of the French Resistance movement, they proved to be an immense benefit.
The tunnels somewhat mirror the roads above ground. Upon entering a new tunnel or turn you’ll find a engraving in the walls stating where you are as if you were above ground.
Ihad told you earlier that the 3 catacombs I have visited were very different, this is true. The way the dead were buried and the organizational way they were buried is very different from each of these Catacombs. The Catacomb de Priscilla in Rome were quite unique in that the socio-economic class system seems to have played a much larger role in where and how you and your family were interned. While in The Catacombs of Paris and The San Francisco Catacombs in Lima were more a depository of bones that had been moved to their current location out of necessity.
Heres a few more images to keep you occupied. And don’t miss the video at the end.
I hope you have enjoyed my little trip down underground in Paris. If you find yourself there, please don’t miss this, it’s an exceptional self guided tour. Oh and you might want to heed the warning signs; “The tour is unsuitable for people with heart or respiratory problems, those of a nervous disposition and young children.”
Credit: Wikipedia, Musees De La Ville De Paris