Origins of the Catacombs of Paris

Paris is a very old city. It has been around since 250 B.C.E., when a Celtic Iron Age people known as the Parisii lived along the banks of the Seine river. A lot of people come and go over the course of 2,000 years. By the end of the 18th century, the cemeteries located within the Parisian city centre had reached a crisis point. For years, they had been crammed far beyond their capacity with bodies. They were so full that burial could no longer be done in a sanitary or respectful manner.

Conditions were particularly abysmal in the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (Holy Innocents’ Cemetery), which was the oldest and largest burial ground in Paris. It was also very central, located right next to Les Halles marketplace. After eight centuries of consecutive use, Les Innocents contained around two million bodies. Although it started out as a site of individual burial, the cemetery soon had to bury its dead in mass graves that contained 1,500 bodies each; only when one of these large, 20 metre-deep pits was full could another be opened. Even using this method, the cemetery had run out of space by the 14th century.

In order to free up burial space, arched buildings known as charnel houses were constructed along the 3-metre tall wall that surrounded the cemetery. The bones of long-dead bodies were exhumed from the pits and piled up in these structures. But the bodies kept coming.

By 1750, inspectors reported that it was difficult to conduct business in the area due to the smell. A prolonged period of rain in 1780 led to a burial pit collapsing under its own weight and spilling its grisly contents into the basements of neighbouring houses.

On September 4, 1780, a law was passed that prohibited the burial of any more bodies in Les Innocents and all other central Paris cemeteries. Three new large-scale burial grounds were established on the outskirts of the city (the infamous Père- Lachaise cemetery was one of these), and all existing parishes located within city limits were condemned.

Engraving depicting the Saint Innocents Cemetery in Paris, around the year 1550. From Wikipedia.

Charnel house at the Saint Innocents Cemetery. Unknown date. From Wikipedia.

At the same time that city officials were given the task of cleaning up the old cemeteries, the left bank of the city was dealing with a series of abandoned, subterranean mines. Over the centuries, this area (which, earlier, had been located outside of city limits) was mined for its rich Lutetian limestone deposits (named after the Roman-era city that existed in this area). A lot of grand Parisian structures built from the 17th century onwards such as the Louvre, Les Invalides, and the Haussman apartment buildings used this limestone in their construction. Many of these old mine quarries had been dug haphazardly, often illicitly, and were often abandoned or forgotten after the limestone had been depleted.

By this point in the 18th century, Paris had grown so large that many of its expanding neighbourhoods were built over previously mined territories. This was problematic, as the occasional collapse of forgotten mine shafts made construction of new buildings and streets dangerous. Louis XVI created a commission, the Inspection of Mines service, that was tasked with mapping, reinforcing, and maintaining the old mining quarries. This was no small task, as the tunnel network (called “the Quarries of Paris”) was ultimately found to span 320 kilometers!¹

Map of Paris’ underground mine quarries. Emile Gérards, published 1908. From Wikipedia.

One of the underground tunnels leading to the catacombs.

Both the mining project and the cemetery closures were issues that Police-Lieutenant-General Alexandre Lenoire was involved with. He suggested relocating the bodies to a series of tunnels that had been renovated in 1782. His idea was approved, and the Tombe-Issoire passageways underwent further preparations to transform them into an ossuary (a final resting place) for the remains of these long-dead Parisians.

On April 7, 1786, the site was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary.” It took two years to transport the bodies from the Holy Innocents’ cemetery. The bodies were moved at night, in black-covered wagons, to avoid negative attention from the public or the Church. The bones were thrown down two quarry wells, and then piled into galleries. In later years, more bodies from other cemeteries were relocated there as well including those from Saint-Étienne-des-Grès, Saint-Eustache, Madeleine Cemetery, Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, Errancis Cemetery, Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux, and the Bernardins Convent.

Six to seven million bodies are thought to have found their final rest in these tunnels, with some of the oldest dating back to the Merovingian era more than 1,200 years ago. The bodies in the ossuary also include plague victims and those who were guillotined during the French Revolution. In total, the bones are displayed across 1.5 kilometers of tunnels.

In 1809, the new director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, had renovations done that completely transformed the look of the ossuary. He had the skulls and femurs stacked in decorative patterns, put up inscriptions of quotations about death made by famous writers and philosophers, and installed headstones and other funerary decorations from the old cemeteries.

For safety, he also walled the ossuary off from the rest of the quarry tunnels that run underneath the city. The ossuary had attracted a few curious spectators since its original inception, including the future Charles X (who visited when he was still just the Count of Artois in 1787 with a group of court ladies). But with the changes that de Thury had made, the ossuary was now set up as a more accessible public monument available to a broader range of visitors on an increasingly regular basis². It was opened as “The Paris Municipal Ossuary” in 1810.

The skulls and femur bones were easiest to work with when stacking. They are used in the front to make a uniform collection of bones. Behind that front wall, the rest of the bones are assembled in a less organized manner.

The rest of the bones located towards the back, mostly out of sight.

The bones in the ossuary are grouped based on the cemetery from which they came. The sign below identifies these bones as being from the Cemetery of the Innocents, “deposited in April 1786.” (Forgive the poor camera focus; photography is allowed, but not with a flash—and it’s fairly dark in there!).

The sign below identifies this group of bones as being from “the Church and Cloister of the Capucins St. Honore. Deposited on March 29, 1804.”

Skulls are used to form a heart amidst a pile of femur bones.

Below is a sign featuring one of de Thury’s inscriptions, featuring a quotation from the French poet Gabriel-Marie Legouvé. I couldn’t find the quote online, so my very rough translation using Google is: “such is given, death is the inevitable empire, / be he virtuous or wicked, all men will expire / the crowd of humans is a small flock / that dreadful pastor Time leads all to the tomb.”

In the same year that the ossuary was officially opened, a lot of local public attention was being paid to the catacombs of Rome. The Roman catacombs are a series of ancient underground burial places located beneath Rome that had been created in the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C.E. They contain people of all Roman religions, but are most famous for containing the bodies of Christian martyrs.

The catacombs had been forgotten until they were rediscovered in 1578. In 1810, French writer Alexis François Artaud de Montor published his account of visiting the Roman catacombs, Voyage dans les catacombes de Rome. This book generated interest in both the Roman catacombs and the Paris underground. Although the Roman catacombs and the Paris ossuary were created at different times for different reasons, they had enough in common to be linked together in the public imagination. Soon, the public was referring to both the Paris ossuary and the larger network of mining tunnels that they were a part of as “the catacombs of Paris.” This is how they are both still known today.

Neil and I took a guided skip-the-line tour of the underground. It is possible to just line up and go on your own with an audioguide but, as with anything else in Paris, a person might have to wait a long time before it’s their turn. I was uncertain about how I’d feel about the visit.

The manner in which the bones are displayed can come across as shocking and disrespectful to a modern person, such as myself. But our tour guide pointed out to us that, in the past, people were much more familiar with mortality and death than we are today. For example, scroll up to the picture of the charnel houses in the Saint Innocents cemetery. I included that picture and the detail behind it because I wanted to show how matter-of-factly those bones were stacked up to the rafters, in a manner very similar to how they are presented in the ossuary. In addition to the loss of loved ones regularly brought on by illness and poor living conditions, Parisians in the 18th and 19th centuries were well-acquainted with the death wrought by violence and political unrest. Seven armed uprising broke out in Paris between 1830-1848 alone!

Although the ossuary was never meant to serve as a cemetery for the newly deceased, some controversial bodies were quickly brought and stashed there in the years before it became an accessible city space. These included several Parisians who were shot and killed by royal guards during a celebration in August 1788, as well as people killed in the Réveillon riots of 1789 and prison massacres in September 1792.

The plaque below commemorates those who were killed in the Insurrection of August 10, 1792, when the Tuileries Palace was stormed by Republican revolutionaries. Louis XVI and his family were living there at the time. The insurrection was a turning point that caused the fall of the French monarchy. On the King’s side of the conflict, losses included 600 members of the Swiss Guard, 200-300 “Gentlemen-at-arms”, and some royalist National Guards. The Republican side tallied a loss of 200-400 people.

A glimpse up one of the old wells, with daylight breaking through.

One of the highlights of the tour includes a room with three special sculptures that were made before the bones were relocated in the tunnels nearby. They were carved by a mine worker named François Decuré (known as “Beauséjoir”) from 1777-1782. Decuré was a veteran who served in the army of Louis XV. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), he was imprisoned by the English in a fortress on the Spanish island of Menorca³, near a town called Port Mahon (Ibiza is Menorca’s more famous island neighbour).

After the war, Decuré came to Paris to work in the quarries. He found this small room, unknown to his fellow workers, and would sneak in before his shift, on his lunch break, and after his shift to carve out these images. One is of Port Mahon, another is of a building façade in the Quartier de Cazerne, and the third is of a place called Port Philipe. The carvings are based on his memories of the locations and were done fifteen years after his imprisonment, so they are not entirely true to life. But they are still remarkable.

Port Mahon.

Quartier de Cazerne.

Port Philipe. Fort San Felipe/Saint Philippe was the name of the fortress that controlled entry to Port Mahon (and in which Decuré may have been imprisoned).

The sign below provides a brief description of Decuré and his sculptures.

In 1782, Decuré was crushed by a cave-in while working on a stairway that would have provided easier access to his sculptures from street level. He later died of his injuries. It’s a sad story, but I think he would be pleased to know how many people have since had the privilege of seeing his work. It’s really touching to imagine this ordinary man working tirelessly for five years on these sculptures, pouring his heart and soul into it, lit only by a torch and using whatever small hand tools he had available.

¹Most of the tunnel network is closed to the public. It’s illegal, and dangerous, to enter them. Of course, this doesn’t stop everybody. They were used by French Resistance fighters and German soldiers during World War II. In 2004, police found a fully equipped movie theatre in one of the caverns. There was a giant screen, projection equipment, film reels, seats for the audience, a fully stocked bar, and a restaurant with tables and chairs. Neil and I also met up with some local Parisians who mentioned that exploring the tunnels was a popular local past time.

² Visits were suspended between 1814-1815 at the height of the Napoleonic War between the UK and France. At first, visits were only allowed a few times a year with the permission of an authorized mines inspector, but later more frequently and with permission by any mine overseer. The permission-only rule was reinstated in 1830 after the condition of the ossuary had deteriorated. Church opposition to the public display of human remains had the ossuary closed entirely from 1833-1850. In 1850, the ossuary re-opened to the public for four visits a year. Public demand increased this to monthly visits in 1867, and then to bi-monthly visits in 1874 (on the first and third Saturdays of each month). During years there was a World’s Fair (1879, 1889, 1900), there were weekly visits available. Daily visits then became routine. Nearly 550,000 people visit each year.

³For more information about Decuré and the island of Menorca, visit this excellent webpage. (It’s in French, so you’ll need to have Google Translate ready to translate the page for you. Unless you know French, of course!).

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