As we approach Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Day of the Dead, what more apt than a visit to the Paris Catacombs? Here, since the late 18th century, rest the bones of millions of Parisians. But why? How did they end up ‘on display’? And what’s it really like down there?
The Catacombs’ story as a final resting place starts in 1785 when public health worries linked to Paris’s cemeteries made authorities decide to transfer the remains to an underground site. The Tombe-Issoire quarry under the Montrouge plain, at that time outside the city, was chosen, but it was unstable. Several collapses had happened in the labyrinth of quarry tunnels extending beneath Paris. In 1774, on December 17, 300 metres of Rue Denfert Rochereau were devoured. According to historian Graham Robb: ‘There was a sound of a giant heaving a great sigh and stretching his limbs … Along the eastern side of the Rue d’Enfer… for what proved to be one quarter of a mile, a gaping trench had opened up and swallowed all the houses.’
Nobody wants to fall through the street into a bone house, so a certain Charles Axel Guillaumot, quarry inspector, was given the task of overseeing the consolidation work needed to prevent further collapses and make the quarries and the bones safe.
Saints-Innocents cemetery, which had been welcoming dead Parisians for over a thousand years, was the first to be emptied. The remains had to be transported at night in order to prevent a public outcry. They were then dumped into quarry wells before workers distributed and piled them up. The quarry was consecrated as Paris Municipal Ossuary in 1786, and work continued with the contents of other cemeteries for nearly 80 years, with a brief pause during the French Revolution. The Ossuary was opened to the public in 1809 and was even visited by Napoleon III. Today, over half a million visitors a year follow in his footsteps, descending 20 metres into the tunnel complex.
It’s cool down there – around 14° year round to be precise – and dark and humid. The bones are so vast in quantity, forming the pale walls around you, it’s difficult to take in that these were once real people with real lives. The very squeamish might be appalled and young children are not advised to enter, but I found the atmosphere calm and meditative. Piled into decorative shapes, hearts and crosses, tibiaie alternate with skulls, supported by Doric columns and antique-style stele. Plaques reveal the names of busy streets above where everyday life continues, inviting visitors to reflect on mortality. Poetic texts and phrases such as Ici l’Empire de la Mort are carved into the stone.
Further invitation to contemplate our place in history comes when we learn that the quarry itself resulted from metres of sediment and mud at the bottom of a tropical sea 45 million years ago, which eventually formed the limestone layer we see today. As the sea evaporated, the marine fauna left behind fossil deposits in the limestone banks: cerithiidae and gastropods can still be seen today on the 1500 metre catacomb circuit, alongside their human counterparts. It’s humbling and we do well to remember that the well-preserved bones we see in the walls, hide a backfill of millions of tiny bone fragments, unfortunately created when the bones were first dumped.
Why Catacombs? The Catacombs beneath Rome had been rediscovered about a hundred years before the Parisian ossuary was created and Parisians, fascinated with this aspect of Roman history, adopted the name. Cata tumbas means among the graves and the word has evolved, merging with the Latin cumbere: to lie.
In another interesting side note, the Quarry Service in charge of the creation of the ossuary was based in one of two symmetrical pavilions, originally designed as the Gates of Hell on either side of the Route d’Orleans. This was part of the perimeter of Paris, a wall 24 kilometres long, with 55 taxation points on the entry of goods and merchandise. A symbol of the power of the State, the building was pillaged and burnt the Revolution, but was soon repaired and renewed its taxation activities, even as the bones of Parisians passed beneath. A reminder that nothing in life is certain, apart of course from death and taxes.