We didn’t visit the Catacombs till our 12th trip to Paris; I had seen displays of bones in Rome’s Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini and felt slightly ashamed of myself for wanting to gaze at the remains of those long dead. This sort of ghoulish voyeurism has fueled a lively tourist trade for Paris’s municipal ostuary since it was opened to the public in 1874.
I suspect it is included on many tourist itineraries to keep the adolescents in the party happy with all the touring of endless museums. And on a hot day, it is a cool respite.
Often there are lines that take 2 or 3 hours in the peak of the tourist season. When we decided to visit on a cool November day in 2011, we had a bit of trouble locating it as there was no line at all and we encountered only about a dozen other tourists underground. The entrance shown below is near the Denfert Rochereau metro stop; it is important to note that the exit is quite some ways away though if one is hoping to meet others after the visit.
The catacombs that hold the bones of six million dead Parisians are a tiny part of the catacomb system that undermines Paris. For centuries stone was mined under the city leaving an extensively honeycombed underground. Like most businesses of this and any time, little thought was given to the consequences other than profit. Quarrying below a city had the predictable outcome of collapses of whole streets and limitations on what can be built above. In the last century and a half a great deal of effort has been devoted to shoring up the tunnels. These vast hollowed out spaces also provided opportunities for building utilities and subways for transport underground.
The quarries also offered a solution to the pressing problem of a city being overwhelmed with its dead. The cemeteries surrounding central churches in the 18th century were literally overflowing with bodies, spreading disease as well as unpleasantness. In the 1780s a section of the quarries was chosen for the deposit of bones from the graveyards and work began on shoring up the tunnels and creating access; in 1786 the process of moving the bones and arranging them began and it was largely completed by 1788. The catacombs were opened as a tourist attraction about a 100 years later.
During WWII the resistance made us of the tunnels as did the Nazi occupiers. They are popular today with illicit explorers. One person who got lost in the tunnels was found 11 years later; it was not a happy find.
Just before entering the area where the bones are entombed there are some interesting carvings. A quarryman known as Decure who was apparently held captive by the English at Port-Mahon in the Balearic Islands during the time of Louis XV carved models of the fort of Port Mahon in the tunnels.
Use of flash photography is not allowed in the tomb itself, so these photos rely on the natural light available. For the most part there are long long corridors in which femurs and skulls are organized in patterns. There are occasional funerary monuments moved here when the bones were. The visit to the tomb is a very very long walk past these walls.
One of the precursors of the French Revolution was a riot at the Place de Greve where the Hotel de Ville now stands. The Place and was the site of a riot of workers against the wealthy in 1788. In these riots of 1788 about 200 people were mowed down by the King’s guard and a dozen or so of the King’s troops died as well. Their remains were deposited here.
This was one of the few spots where we saw bones other than femurs and skulls. There are a few pelves, vertebrae and ribs here. Apparently most of the smaller or more fragile bones were tossed behind the walls made of femurs and skulls when the remains were moved here.
In the late 19th century there was panic when streets in the city began to collapse into the tunnel system. Engineers built support arches in weakened areas to prevent further collapse. Near the exit of the catacombs you can see some of these arches and some of the domes that needed buttressing.
After walking several kilometers underground the exit of the ostuary of the catacombs is naturally a good ways away from the entrance and after a long climb back up to street level tourists find themselves in front of this fish market.