Catacombs of Paris in Paris
The Catacombs of Paris or Catacombes de Paris are an underground ossuary in Paris, France. Located south of the former city gate (the "Barrière d'Enfer" at today's Place Denfert-Rochereau), 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 1867. Following an incident of vandalism, they were closed to the public in September 2009 and reopened 19 December of the same year.
The official name for the catacombs is l'Ossuaire Municipal. Although this cemetery covers only a small section of underground tunnels comprising "les carrières de Paris" ("the quarries of Paris"), Parisians today often refer to the entire tunnel network as "the catacombs".
Background: Parisian cemeteries
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 apellation by the end of the same century. Eventually Paris' other churches adopted the technique of mass inhumation 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 liquid sustenance 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, Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east, Passy Cemetery in the west. Later, Montparnasse Cemetery was added in the south.
Paris' former mines
Part of the reason nothing was done about Paris's untenable burial practices was a lack of ideas for disposing of the dead exhumed from the city's intra-muros parish graveyards. The government had been searching for and consolidating long abandoned stone quarries in and around the capital since 1777, and it was the Police Lieutenant General overseeing the renovations, Alexandre Lenoir, who first had the idea to use empty underground tunnels on the outskirts of the capital to this end. His successor, Thiroux de Crosne, chose a place to the south of Paris' "porte d'Enfer" city gate (the place Denfert-Rochereau today), and the exhumation and transfer of all Paris' dead to the underground sepulture began in 1786, taking until 1788 to complete.
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" (a house near the bame name), 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-Étienne Héricart 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.
The Catacombs entry is in the western pavilion of Paris's former Barrière d'Enfer city gate. After descending a narrow spiral stone stairwell of 19 meters to the darkness and silence broken only by the gurgling of a hidden aqueduct channelling local sources away from the area, and after passing through a long (about 1.5 km) and twisting hallway 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 ('Stop, 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. 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.
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 houses and roadways collapsed into previously unknown caverns below.
Bodies of the dead from the riots in the Place de Grève, the Hôtel de Brienne, and Rue Meslée were put in the catacombs on 28 and 29 August 1788.
The catacomb walls are covered in graffiti dating from the eighteenth century onwards. Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system in Les Misérables. In 1871, communards killed a group of monarchists in one chamber. During World War II, Parisian members of the French Resistance used the tunnel system. Also during this period, German soldiers established an underground bunker in the catacombs below Lycée Montaigne, a high school in the 6th arrondissement.
- In Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, the catacombs were the resting place of a parchment concerning the Knights Templar.
- In Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night, two characters investigating the murders of London vampires descend into the catacombs. There they find Brother Anthony, a 600-year-old priest-turned-vampire, living among the bones of the dead.
- In Robison Wells's novel The Counterfeit, the catacombs are the location of a meeting place of the Illuminati. The main characters, Eric and Rebekah, are guided through the catacombs by three cataphiles.
- William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means begins with a section titled "Three Medititations on Death". The first meditation, entitled "Catacomb Thoughts", is a reflection on the Catacombs of Paris.
- In The 39 Clues book 1, "The Maze of Bones", the main characters Amy, Dan, and Nellie must search the catacombs in search for a hint to the first clue.
- Quigley, Christine (2001) Skulls and skeletons: human bone collections and accumulations. McFarland, Jefferson, NC, USA. pp. 22–29.
- Catacombs of Paris Museum – The Catacombes de Paris official site, in English
- L'Empire de la Mort – Ghosts and History of the Catacombs of Paris
- "A tour of the dark world beneath the city of lights" by Murray Battle