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  • Writer's pictureParisian Niche

The Catacombs of Paris...



We've already talked about some frightening creatures in the Parisian Niche - but, our grotesque and gargoyle friends don't hold a candle to the scary beings we'll look at today! Just in time for Halloween, let's get ready for a spook-tacular trip beneath the medieval cobblestones of Paris...


Many people think that if you are near an unearthed skeleton, you are bound to be in for a proper haunting or at the very least, a spiritual encounter of sorts. What about if you were surrounded by the bones over six million souls?


image: timeout.com

You heard P'Niche...the remains of over 6 million people were deposited into this massive underground ossuary.


An ossuary is simply a place where bones are kept and stems from the Latin word ossuārium (“charnel house”), from ossuārius (“of / for bones”). Incidentally, the word for bone in French is also "os."


Let's venture below ground (65 feet below to be exact) to learn more about Paris' most morbidly unique site...


image: smithsonianmag.com

We're falling back in time all the way to the 13th century. During these days, limestone was mined from beneath the ground, which served as an incredibly large stone quarry.


Most of these quarries were in the southern part of Paris and the removed limestone was later transformed into Paris' many unique monuments and buildings.



image: hotels.com

This mining and removal of limestone went on for quite some time, as Paris continued her building and expansion into Europe's great city.


Needless to say, the mining of all of the limestone from the underground created an absolute labyrinth of winding tunnels and passageways. And for some time, these passages remained empty and untouched. What could go wrong?!


image: Musée Carnavalet/Théodore Hoffbauer

Glad you asked! As it turns out, hundreds of years of passing Parisian souls (and bodies) had taken its toll on the centrally located Cimitière des Innocents.


As it became the city's main cemetery, it was located in very close proximity to the crowded Les Halles market place. If you've been to this hyper-busy area of Paris, even in modern times, you can imagine how teeming and confusing it was back in ye old days!


image: nomadicmatt.com

By the 1780s, this cemetery became an absolute disaster area. Not much care was given to those who passed.


Remains had become piled atop each other, placed in disorganized layers, and often packed tightly together and placed into charniers, which are mass graves, left to be built into the walls of the cemetery. Sounds just grizzly!


image: sortfiraparis.com

But wait, there's more! This central cemetery became overly full and quite disorganized with the layers of mass graves left overflowing. The earth itself rose more than six feet, simply beyond its natural capacity with the graves and remains of so many late Parisians.


Even the 16th century writer, Rabelais, noted that Paris was "a good city to live in, but not to die in." Quel Yikes!



Gentle P'Nicher, this is where our spooky pre-Halloween tale gets a little bit "Poltergeist." The cemetery had become so full that the mess and odor had overtaken this area of town. Add to this, a huge series of rains - over-saturating the delicate and already troubled grounds. Cellars and pathways in the quarries were beginning to crumble amidst the weight.


In 1763, Louis XV issued a royal edict banning further burials inside Paris. Due to church pressure, this edict didn't really serve any purpose until... let's move forward now into the 1780's. And we're not the only ones moving - you guessed it! All of those remains from the Cimitière des Innocents were excavated and moved.



image: en.wikipedia.org

Starting with Cimitière des Innocents in 1786, cemeteries began to be emptied.


This macabre undertaking took over 12 years to complete, with the remains of over 6 million bodies being moved into what we now call Les Catacombes de Paris.




Much was discovered during this tedious process. It was learned that some of the oldest remains date back to the Merovingian era (more than 1,200 years ago). Some of the most famous "residents" of the catacombs are Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilian de Robespierre (both of French Revolution / The Terror) periods.



image: decanter.com

The good news is that the remains were treated with a lot more respect and dignity than they were during their original burial into the grounds of the cemeteries of Paris.


These centuries old remains were then accompanied by priests during their move (which occurred only at night so as not to disturb the locals, who had been disturbed enough with the mess and odors when the cemeteries were functioning).


image: travel.earth

In addition, these remains were not simply tossed into the catacombs. They were arranged with great care and artistry.


Think, "Death, but make it Fashion."


Remains are stacked all the way from floor to ceiling. There are even remains laid into the shape of a heart.


How... charming?!


image: reddit.com

The skeletons were left largely alone and unvisited, aside from some intimate concerts and other private events until the early 19th century.


In 1809, the catacombs were opened for visits, by private appointment. Even Napoleon III and his son paid a visit.

In 2013, the Catacombs joined the network of Paris Musées and has remained as such to date.


These days, it is very easy to visit Les Catacombes de Paris (it totals about a mile long walk). We'll describe below. In the meantime, know that as you enter, you will cross a threshold that hauntingly reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la mort. ("Stop! This is the empire of the dead").


That's not terrifying at all!



If you would like to visit, please allow me to lay out several "P'Niche PSAs" for your planning and convenience.


The catacombs are not for the weak of heart - there are 112 steps down - and that means back up again. Those with heart conditions or lack of mobility will wish to consider this before booking a visit.



Although only 200 visitors can enter at a time, the quarters are very tight. Those with aversions to closed in spaces will wish to keep this in mind.


It also gets a bit damp and chilly (even in summer). You'd be smart to bring a sweater along with you for your visit.



You can only bring a small bag or purse with you into the catacombs.


Your bag will be checked on the way out to ensure that remains / bones were not taken during your visit. You'd be shocked to know how many bones I saw taken back from people's bags during my own visit. P'Niche wishes she was joking...



image: blog.sevenponds.com

Still interested in visiting? Great!


Open daily from 10am - 8pm (except Mondays and various holidays).


Entrance to the Catacombs:

1, avenue du Colonel Henri Roi-Tanguy

Métro: Denfert-Rochereau


You will exit at a different location:

21, bis, Avenue René-Coty

Métro: Mouton Duvernet


image: catacombs.tickets-paris.fr

You can book tickets in advance, which we recommend heartily, as the lines can be incredibly long. You can learn more here.


You can also book a tour (group or semi private). While I have not done a tour (I simply walked through), this group has gotten many good reviews on the many various tour boards in Paris.




What do you think, P'Nicher? Have you been to the catacombs? Are you inspired to return - or to give it a try for the first time? Do let us know your thoughts in the comments below et à bientôt!


image: parade.com
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4 Comments


saundra2851
Nov 02, 2022

While I already knew the story I truly enjoyed your colorful telling of it. So appropriate for this time of year. Thanks 😉

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chrissy
Nov 02, 2022
Replying to

My pleasure and I'm delighted you enjoyed it!

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bobkolinski
Oct 28, 2022

Thanks so much for the fascinating history, though I am still and probably will always be processing that tourists would actually want to take human remains with them. Other than that you have inspired me to (finally) visit as I’m staying in the area next week :) Merci !!

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chrissy
Oct 28, 2022
Replying to

No joke, people had SO many bones taken away from them - I don't want to know the thought pattern there, but am excited for your visit and opinions!

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