Many tourists who fill the bustling streets of Paris do not realize that there is a twisting network of tunnels and caverns deep beneath their feet—and that it is lined with the bones of the dead. These tunnels and caverns are part of the eerie underground world of Paris’s catacombs, which continue for miles on end. More than six million Parisians—nearly three times the population living in the city above—have found their final resting place here. Although Paris’s catacombs often go unseen by the typical tourist, they are a must-see for adventure-seekers and history buffs.
When strolling along the streets around the Barrière d’Enfer, Paris’s former city gate, there is nothing particularly unusual to catch your eye—except perhaps the long line of people waiting to enter a small black building. This line marks the entrance to Paris’s catacombs.
Once inside this small building, you go down a narrow spiral staircase nearly 50 feet underground. Gone are the sounds of the street. The only sound now is the occasional drip, drip of water falling from the damp stone ceiling and the faint echo of whispers and footfalls of other visitors exploring the labyrinth of tunnels. The air smells dank and musty.
As you walk the narrow tunnels, a dim light falls on the bones lining the walls. Leg bones are stacked from the floor to the ceiling so that only their uneven ends protrude, and strategically placed skulls accent the wall of bones, seemingly gazing at you as you pass.
“Entering the catacombs was like stepping back in time,” says Grant Olsen of Lehi, Utah. “The musty air, low ceilings, and jagged bones all signaled that we’d left the comfort of typical tourist attractions.” But Olsen also explains, “There is a beauty and melancholy to the place that is quite unique. I’ve never seen anything else like it.”
As you walk through the winding tunnels, the bones seem to tell a story. The catacombs of Paris were created as a result of overcrowding in local cemeteries that began as early as the tenth century AD; mass burial grounds were built to hold all of the remains. This was a particularly common practice at the Cimitière des Saints-Innocents (the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery), Paris’s oldest and largest cemetery. The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery was one of the most sought-after burial places and was a large source of revenue for the parish and the church, so the clergy continued to allow burials there, even when its grounds were filled to overflowing.
By the seventeenth century, the cemetery was lined on all four sides with charniers, depositories for the bones taken out of mass graves so that the graves could be used again. The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery was closed in 1780, and in 1786 the government decided to make Paris’s abandoned underground stone quarries the final interment site for this cemetery’s dead. Later they decided that these quarries would receive the old bones from all of Paris’s cemeteries, which were also overcrowded.
Once the site had been blessed and consecrated by religious authorities, the work of transporting the remains began. The bones were loaded onto carts by night, covered with a black veil, and hauled to the quarries. Priests accompanied this reverent procession of carts each night for the two years it took to transfer all of the bones to the underground caverns.
Initially, the underground quarries served simply as repositories for the bones, but in 1810, renovation efforts transformed the underground caverns into an expansive underground crypt. Skulls and femurs now mark the passageways, sometimes forming decorative shapes like hearts or crosses. To complement the solemn array of bones, workers even included some of the tombstones that remained from the cemeteries.
Although slightly macabre, Paris’s catacombs represent a unique and strangely beautiful aspect of Parisian culture. Diana Hoppe, an avid world traveler from Los Angeles, says, “I have been a lot of places, but the catacombs in Paris definitely stand out! It was something that you would expect to find creepy, but there was a surprising feeling of reverence in the tunnels.”
In a uniquely beautiful way, the catacombs are a monument to Paris’s past that beckons to people from around the globe. Juliette Fosset, a Paris native, visited the catacombs as a little girl and remembers them as both “scary” and “impressive.” She says that the catacombs have a mysterious appeal and that it isn’t until you have visited them that you realize “how much the catacombs are still alive.”
As you walk through the twisting corridors, the bones seem to whisper the secrets, stories, and aspirations of the people who walked, worked, loved, and toiled in eighteenth-century Paris. Nobility and rank have dissipated, and the bones of bygone French nobles now rest alongside those of revolutionaries and peasants in a nameless, rankless array.
Once you emerge from this underground adventure and step blinking into the sunlight, you will look at Paris differently—not necessarily through rose-colored glasses but with a greater sense of appreciation for the men and women responsible for building the Paris we love today.