“Dequelque coté que tu tournes la mort est aux aguets”
“Whichever way you turn, death is on the lookout”
In the underbelly of Paris, below the water and waste pipes and Metro tunnels is a place that stays at a constant temperature of 14°C and attracts over 300,000 visitors a year.
I first felt the need to visit The Catacombs of Paris after watching the film ‘As Above, So Below’ which mixed my fascination with the intriguing tale of Nicolas Flamel (more about him in a later post) as well as my love of history and horror. Having been to Paris before and done all of the touristy things a plan to go back and do the ‘alternative history of Paris’ was hatched!
First, a bit of history. The city of Paris was built on a large sedimentary basin rich in limestone and gypsum (a component in ‘Plaster of Paris’…hence the name!). During the late 13th Century mining of this limestone began and was used to build most of the buildings in the city such as the Panthéon and Notre-Dame. Instead of extracting the limestone using the ‘open-air’ method where stone is dug from large pits, the miners used the technique of underground mining by digging horizontally into the earth. This created an underground network of tunnels that were never recorded and large parts that were almost forgotten, until 1774 when parts of the mines below what is now Avenue Denfert-Rochereau caved in creating a sink-hole that caused the buildings above to subside into the earth. In response to this, King Louis XVI and his Royal Council created a team of architects; the Inspection des Carrières sous Paris et Plaines Adjacentes (Inspection Unit for Quarries Below Paris and Surrounding Plains), responsible for inspecting, maintaining, consolidating and repairing the mines. Indeed, there are several examples along the tour where there are huge gaping holes above you with many structural supports added to prevent the collapse of the buildings and streets above.
The name “Catacombs” and the idea to create an underground ossuary was taken in part as a reference to the ancient Catacombs of Rome and came about in the late 17th Century as a solution to Paris’ overflowing cemeteries and churchyards. Much like the problems Britain faced after the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the ‘Magnificent Seven Cemeteries’, pharmacist Antoine-Alexis Cadet de Vaux wrote to the Royal Academy of Sciences warning that Paris’ overcrowded burial sites could create a “sulphurous air pollution complicated by miasmas or a kind of cadaverous gas” that would endanger public health. The biggest culprit of this was Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (Holy Innocents’ Cemetery) which during its 600 years of operation had seen over 2 million souls buried there. The necessity to dispose of Saints-Innocents became urgent in 1780 after the basement wall of a property next to the cemetery collapsed under the sheer weight of bodies. The smell of the cemetery was apparently so bad that perfume shops in the area went out of business! The cemetery was immediately closed and interments within the city’s other burial grounds were ceased. The head of the Paris Police Prefecture, Alexandre Lenoir, who had been involved in the renovation of the mines, proposed the idea of moving the dead to the subterranean passageways. The idea became law in 1785.
The mines were prepped to receive the exhumed remains and the ground was consecrated on 7th April 1786. The transportation of the remains lasted 15 months and were brought to the site under the cover of darkness by funerary carts draped in black and accompanied by priests. The bones were then unceremoniously thrown down a service shaft that the poet Gabriel-Marie Legouvé described in his poem ‘La Mélancolie’ as a “shapeless debris-monument to the departed”. Between 1792 and the early 1800’s over 28 other burial sites in Paris were closed and the deceased exhumed and moved to the catacombs. Interments still continued sporadically up until the 1960’s as remains were unearthed due to archaeological excavations.
It wasn’t until 1810 when the catacombs became an ossuary when the director of the Paris Mine Inspection service, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, had renovations organised in the mines that the bones were transformed into a visitable mausoleum and arranged into the medieval patterns still visible today. Although the Catacombs have always been a curiosity for the public since its inception, at first visits were limited and only accessible a few times a year and with an accompanying guide. The macabre hungry Victorian public wanted more and soon visits became monthly, then bi-weekly and then in 1900 weekly to coincide with the World’s Fair Expositions. You can still view a black stripe mark on the ceiling and plaques indicating which street was above you; giving lost souls a chance to get their bearings in the dark maze of tunnels. It is a common misconception that the network of subterranean tunnels are all part of the Catacombs, only 1.1 miles of the 200 mile maze of caves, quarries and lakes are dedicated to the ossuary. The rest of the tunnels are closed off to the public but secret groups known as ‘Cataphiles’ illegally explore these areas using hidden entrances all over the city. The risk of doing so is not only being caught by the special police team E.R.I.C that patrol the entrances (and slap you with a €60 fine if you are caught), but also becoming lost or experiencing a cave-in.
On entering the ossuary, visitors are greeted with the words “Arrête! C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort” (“Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead”), warning the visitor that they are entering another world different to their own. This only adds to the Catacombs’ foreboding air.
Along the winding pathways of underground walkways to the ossuary there are inscriptions etched into blocks of stone in the walls. They work much like a library catalogue, with the first number representing which number in a series that the pillar was built. The letter next to this specifies to the quarry inspector who oversaw its placement. The next set of numbers indicates the date it was laid – essentially acting like an early form of barcode. Following these inscriptions, one can follow the chronology of the reconstruction of the tombs and renovations of the original quarry passageways.
Other inscriptions are found throughout the catacombs themselves. To restore some order to the chaotic piles of bones he encountered, Héricart de Thury established engraved stones indicating when the bones were interred and their initial Parisian cemetery origin. These worked as gravestones that families could visit if they had relatives that had been interred in any of the cemeteries transferred to the Catacombs.
There are also biblical inscriptions and macabre prose and poetry on the walls at various intervals. These all have one central theme, death; and reflect the cultural interests of the time (the Gothic, Romanticism and Greco-Roman revival).
There are also monuments for visitors to see. One of the first being the Croix de Bordeaux; dedicated to ‘Jacques de Bordeaux; Lord Saint-Aubin-sur-Yonne, Advisor to the King of Parliament’, a rare religious sign to find in the ossuary despite it being consecrated ground. On this stone a copper plate once sat that was stolen in 1902. Now only photographs remain of its existence.
Visitors also pass the Samaritan Fountain (also known as ‘The Spring of Lethe’ or ‘The Spring of Forgiveness’). Less of a fountain and more of a well, it collects falling water from the ceiling. In 1813 it was part of a scientific experiment in which 4 goldfish were introduced to the well to study their evolution, reproduction and acclimatisation. It is said that not only did they fail to reproduce but they also went blind and could predict the weather outside of the Catacombs, for example, sinking to the bottom of the well before rain fell above ground (though perhaps this may have been due to the porous nature of the stone and the fish wanting to get fresher water from the bottom of the well – however, superstitions remain…).
As expected the Catacombs have their fair share of dark tales and urban legends. The most recently came to light in 2016 when a group of Cataphiles found an abandoned video camera in one of the tunnels. On viewing the videotape inside it shows a sole explorer finding piles of bones as he explored the underground labyrinth. As the tape continues the explorer becomes distressed and begins running away from an unknown “something” before finally dropping the camera which keeps filming as he disappears off into the darkness. Many believe the man never made it out alive and his remains have joined those that are already there while others think it was a publicity stunt for a TV show and mimics the trend of found footage films so popular today.
Another story is about a man named Philibert Aspairt, a porter of the Val-de-Grâce convent hospital, who went missing in 1793 after entering the catacombs while on a night shift. His body was discovered 11 years later in 1804 close to one of the exits. The theory goes that he went down into the Catacombs and lost his way, wandering around in the dark until he starved to death. His body was buried in the Catacombs where it was found with the date of his burial as 30th April 1804, but his death certificate detailing the date of death eight days later on 8th May.
The Catacombs are, like most interesting places, a victim of their own success. They attract over 300,000 visitors a year and have caused a certain amount of controversy. There are many people who visit who have no thoughts for the millions of souls buried there and are just after the chance to get the perfect selfie. It is, after all, consecrated ground that has been turned into a tourist attraction and whether you are religious or not these are the remains of once living people, some of whom still have families alive today. With all places that attract the human race it has had its fair share of vandalism. This has resulted in several areas being roped off and the Catacombs were closed for several months in 2009. I can’t help but think we are all missing out on a vital part of not only Paris’ history but how society approaches and deals with death.
I recommend visiting The Catacombs later in the afternoon or early morning and outside of school holidays. I also strongly recommend booking tickets online before you do go as a wait in the queue outside is often over two hours long and does not guarantee you entry for that day. The website to book them on can be found here http://b12-gat.apps.paris.fr/Information.aspx it is all in French so it may be worth having a friend who knows the language to help you out or ask in your hotel where staff (hopefully!) will be happy to help. Choose the audio guide option which is well worth the extra money as it gives you a step by step tour of the Catacombs, their creation and history. Whilst the actual ossuary may only be just over a mile in length, we spent around three hours in subterranean Paris so it’s a good half’s day activity. Oh – and there are no lifts, you will descend the 130 steps by foot on a spiral staircase to the 20 m depth and slowly make your way through the dimly lit passages to climb the 83 steps back to the metropolitan hubbub. It’s a great workout!
by Amy Peters