Most days there is a big queue of people near Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris. They are waiting to see the Paris Catacombs, a network of old caves and tunnels, filled with human bones and skulls.
We joined the queue for this subterranean jaunt last November. You need to be able-bodied for this tourist attraction, as the trip involves negotiating 130 steps down into the catacombs, a 2 km walk underground and 83 steps back up to street level. The section open to the public is just a small fraction of the catacombs, which stretch for 300 km underneath Parisian streets.
The area was originally a network of quarries, which were formed when limestone was mined to build the city. The quarries weakened parts of the city’s foundations and in the late 18th century work was done to strengthen the roads above them. At around the same time there was an issue with the cemeteries in Paris. The number of people buried in the city was so great that it was causing health concerns.
The Cemetery of the Innocents, which was the largest and oldest of the Parisian cemeteries, was of particular concern. It had been in use for nearly 1,000 years so it was overcrowded and had become a source of infection and constant complaints from the public. In 1785, it was decided not only to ban burials in this cemetery but to remove the bodies already buried there and reintern them in the quarries.
In 1786, the quarry site was blessed and consecrated and transfer of the remains from Les Innocents began. The bones were loaded onto carts and covered with a black veil for the journey, which was always undertaken at night following a ceremony where a procession of priests sang the service for the dead along the route. It took two years to empty Les Innocents. Over the following decades, human remains were removed from other cemeteries around Paris and taken to the catacombs. Some of the more recent bones date from the French Revolution, while the oldest may be more than 1,200 years old.
The catacombs provided a solution to overcrowding in the city’s cemeteries and became known as ‘The Empire of the Dead’. Today, the remains of six million people lie under Paris, nearly three times as many as the population living above in ‘The City of Light’. However, the disadvantage of the catacombs being directly under the city’s streets is that large foundations cannot be built. This is the reason there are few tall buildings in Paris.
The tunnels played a part in the Second World War. Parisian members of the French Resistance used the winding tunnels to hide in, and German soldiers set up an underground bunker in the catacombs, just below the 6th arrondissement. Although it was made illegal to enter other parts of the catacombs in 1955, Parisian urban explorers known as Cataphiles often breach this law.
I certainly wouldn’t be game to go exploring the catacombs on my own – I found even walking through the section open to the public an eerie experience. The walls of the tunnels are lined with bones and skulls. The remains are neatly arranged with plaques giving the name of the cemetery where they were taken from and when, and quotes about life and death. After a while, the sheer number of bones and skulls desensitises you to what you are seeing. It is difficult to believe that this number of people once walked the streets of Paris, and sobering to think that all are now anonymous and forgotten. At most their names might grace a branch of a family tree.
A visit to the Paris Catacombs reminds you of your own mortality … and for that it is worth a visit.