As in many European cities, Paris ran out of places to put the bodies of their dead. First burials were outside the city limits, then with the advent of Christianity the deceased were buried in city church yards and when they filled up Parisians continued to bury their dead in mass graves in the church yards. The Parisians feared that the decaying bodies in the soil would affect the city’s water sources and soon bodies were being exhumed after the flesh had decomposed and the bones would be placed to one side. In this way the city could reuse the graves.
In the early 19th century the situation reached its peak, the inner city cemeteries were condemned and new large burial grounds were opened outside the city center. Still the Paris dead sought a new abode and it was Police Lieutenant General Alexandre Lenoir who came up with the idea to use abandoned stone quarries to house the dead. This began in 1786 with pomp and ceremony and pretty soon the bones of all the city’s dead were being systematically stored underground. The city’s bones were ceremoniously transported by wagon to the catacombs at night up until 1814.
Later in 1810 the General’s successor beautified the tunnels creating more of a sepulture feel with decorations and adornments as well as having the bones artistically arranged. Since the late 18th century the catacombs have been attracting tourists, even King Charles X, Madame de Guiche and Napoleon III have been to see the same bones which tourists gasp at today. In total the bones of 6 million people are stored in L’Ossuaire Municipal (Les Catacombes). Visitors can see walls of bones, sculls stacked on top of each other and attempts to create decorations using the bones arranged in artistic ways. There is also graffiti in the catacombs which dates back to the 18th century. On a tour of the catacombs you’ll learn about the many uses the tunnels had before becoming an ossuary, for example when they were used by farmers to grow mushrooms and by the French Resistance during WWII.
Visiting the Paris Catacombs
Enter the Paris Catacombs at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, Place Denfert Rochereau near the Barriere d’Enfer which can be reached from the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop or bus numbers 38 and 68. The catacombs are open daily from 10am to 5pm and closed on Mondays and public holidays. The tour covers 2km of the 300km of tunnels which criss-cross beneath Paris. You’ll need to descend 130 steps to reach the tunnels, 20 meters below ground and ascend another 83 to get out. Admission is €8 for adults, €6 for 14 – 26 year olds and under 13 year olds enter for free. The labyrinth of tunnels is best seen using the audio guides (€3) which can be rented at the Catacomb entrance and the tour takes about 45 minutes.