I will preface this story with a short disclaimer, for those of you with weak stomachs, about the grizzly and grim details contained within. For my story today is about the Catacombs beneath Paris, and how they came to be.
We begin in the mid-eighteenth century, at which time Paris is the second largest city in Europe. Louis XV, described by historian Jerome Blum as “a perpetual adolescent called to do a man's job”, rules from his great-grandfather’s 300 billion dollar palace, Versailles, twelve miles away from the cramped quarters of the city and the seething ranks of poor Parisians. His reign is marked by extravagant spending, incompetent management, and a widening rift between the monarchy and the common people, especially those living in Paris.
Thus, the State ignores the needs of its people until problems become severe, and let me tell you, the problems that necessitate the Catacombs are severe. At some point, Paris runs out of space for its half a million living residents and the six million deceased, specifically in Cimetière des Innocents.
Now, Cimetière des Innocents opened in the twelfth century as a small burial site consisting of individual burials. But as time and several plague outbreaks pass, the cemetery gets bigger, and individual burials turn into mass graves twenty feet deep, each containing about fifteen hundred corpses. Most of the burial pits are barely covered too, so it’s not uncommon to see dead bodies sticking out of the mud.
What is it like for the people unlucky enough to live nearby? Well, it’s enough to make even the most mild-mannered peasant want to guillotine the King. The stench of decomposing flesh is overwhelming, the water is poisoned, and the air is so impure that even candles won’t light. And people are actually falling into burial pits.
And you thought your commute to work was bad.
Finally, after a particularly bad rain storm, a burial pit bursts through the wall of a private home, filling some poor family’s living room with corpses in various stages of decomposition. That is when the State intervenes.
King Louis XIV issues an edict in 1780 to finally halt burials at Cimetière des Innocents, and all other cemeteries within Paris. Sounds like common sense, but it's not for these people. Fortunately, Paris has a disused limestone quarry waiting in the wings. So the work begins!
The task of moving the six million corpses happens only at night, in carts covered by black shrouds, accompanied by chanting priests and a lot of incense. They then have to be taken down to the tunnels, which are about five stories underground, and stacked in rooms called ossuaries. Additionally, the city must maintain fires to purify the air, and resourceful citizens collect the large deposits of adipocere left behind, otherwise known as ‘corpse wax’, to make candles. (When life gives you corpses, make corpse candles).
Twelve years later, the cemeteries are empty, Cimetière Des Innocents is raised to the ground for the health and sanity of all, and spoiler: the King is dead, he lost his head. After the revolution, bodies go straight into the catacombs—including that of revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, who shoots himself in the face and then gets guillotined by his former comrades during the “Reign of Terror”. It’s a really bad day for Max.
The catacombs remain in use for another twenty years—by which time the decapitating has slowed down—until Louis-Étienne François Héricart de Thury renovates the catacombs and transforms them into the work of macabre beauty they are today.
The whole complex finishes up at about two hundred and two kilometres of tunnels and ossuaries, only two of which are open to the public. Above the entrance reads the infamous inscription; “Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la mort.” It’s a warning that should be heeded by all who enter.
That brings our story to an end, for now. However, should you choose to visit, always be respectful, and don’t get lost.
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