The Catacombs of Paris are a subterranean burial ground holding the remains of over six million people located 68 feet underneath the city of Paris, France. They were created in 1810 in an effort to eliminate the city's overflowing cemeteries.
Paris' earliest burial grounds were on the outskirts of the Roman-era Left Bank city, which was abandoned by early Parisians in favor of the Right Bank, where cemeteries were placed near the city center. The most central of these cemeteries, a burial ground associated with the church of the "Saints Innocents" had, by 1130, become the city's principal cemetery with the name Les Innocents.
Before long, the cemetery managers were taking drastic measures to make room for all the incoming bodies: long-dead corpses were exhumed and their bones packed into the roofs and walls of galleries built inside the cemetery walls. A series of ineffective decrees limiting the use of Les Innocents did little to remedy the situation, and in the late 1700s, a series of gruesome cave-ins caused the government to create a new large-scale burial ground on the outskirts of the city. The creation of new cemeteries left the issue of existing remains inside the city still unresolved.
Into the Mines
The City of Paris was largely built from quarried limestone from far under the city streets. These mines stretched far across the city and were largely unmapped and abandoned by the 1700s. There were a series of serious mine collapses that caused the city to begin a project of renovation and reinforcement of the mines to prevent further incidents of collapse.
In 1782, Paris Police Prefect Lieutenant-General Alexandre Lenoir approved the plan to move bodies from Les Innocents and other urban cemeteries into the abandoned mines. The plan was turned into a law in 1785. A well within a walled property above one of the subterranean passageways was dug to receive Les Innocents' unearthed remains. For two years, the route between Les Innocents and the catacombs became a nightly procession of black cloth-covered wagons carrying the millions of Parisian dead.
From Mine to Monument
In their early years, the catacombs were merely a disorganized bone repository, but in 1810, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, the director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, undertook a series of renovations that transformed the underground caverns into a glorious monument to death.
In addition to directing the stacking of skulls and femurs into the patterns seen in the catacombs today, de Thury also used the existing cemetery decorations he could find, such as headstones and statues, to complement the walls of bones. He also added monumental tablets and archways bearing inscriptions to serve as warnings, descriptions, or comments about the nature of the catacombs.
At this time, the main section of the catacombs containing human remains (about two miles of tunnels) was walled off from the larger network of underground mines. The catacombs are the most accessible gateway to more than 200 miles of interconnected tunnels that sprawl under the city of Paris.
Public Access to the Catacombs
The Catacombs of Paris quickly became a curiosity for more privileged Parisians and visits for the general public visits began after 1815, but only with the permission of an authorized mine inspector. By 1833, the constant flow of visitors had degraded the condition of the catacombs and they were closed to public display. However, in 1850, the government began allowing public visits again and gradually increased the number of tourists permitted to journey into the catacombs.
Today, the catacombs are open to the general public for visitation throughout most of the year. Even so, the museum administration struggles to meet the demand and keeps tours to a short 45 minute walk through the main section of human remains. No more than 200 people are permitted to journey into the catacombs at any one time.
The catacombs are accessed through a 120-step spiral staircase that takes visitors straight down into the earth. To gauge just how far that might feel, the first level of the Eiffel Tower is reached via 300 steps. Getting back out of the catacombs involves a climb up a separate spiral staircase (also 120 steps).
A group of Paris locals, known as cataphiles, have found their own ways to access the catacombs. These brave individuals spend their free time mapping the unexplored tunnels and abandoned mines dating as far back as the Roman Era. Because the authorities consider their activities illegal trespassing, cataphiles are very secretive and fiercely protective of the catacombs.
The bones in the catacombs are essentially used in two different ways: the leg bones and skulls are stacked and bonded with mortar as walls along the corridor. All the remaining bones are then piled high behind these walls. The majority of the bones in the catacombs are loose and can easily be picked up, however, there are numerous signs warning against this. Even touching the bones is discouraged.
Due to the humidity in the subterranean environment, the bones are not clean and polished in the manner of traditional bleached bone specimens. They have a damp feeling to them and most of them are quite dirty from two hundred years of exposure to underground conditions. This makes them generally unsuitable for souvenirs anyway, and most genuine bone collectors would do better to purchase bones from a reputable medical supplier.