If you’ve got even a passing knowledge of Paris, you’re probably aware of the catacombs that exist below the picturesque cafes, museums, and monuments…but have you ever stopped to wonder why 6 million people were interred without headstone or fanfare beneath the city of lights and love?
Well, I’ll tell you the tale, which begins (as most things in the early industrial age) with rampant death and disease.
As Paris grew into a booming city, people began to flood in from the countryside in search of a different sort of life. By the end of the 18th century the city was stuffed full to bursting, and the local graveyards and cemeteries had quickly run out of available real estate.
Les Innocents, one of the biggest graveyards at the time, was so full that the smell of rotting bodies was causing complaints blocks away – an excess of spring rains led to the split of a cellar wall and a gush of half-decomposed bodies into the basement of a nearby property.
Yeah. I’m imagining there were some pretty heated words exchanged over that.
Authorities ordered that Les Innocents, along with every other cemetery within the city limits, be closed to new burials. Not only that, but it was decided that the contents of the city’s current cemeteries be removed to protect the public health.
Where to put them, though?
Well (un?) fortunately, Paris was once home to a number of mines and quarries, which left plenty of cavernous space beneath the city – perfect for turning into an ossuary.
Between 1787-1814, bones were transferred into the mines, with an entrance left just outside the old city gate called Barriere d’Enfer (Gate of Hell). The bones were initially tossed in, but were later neatly stacked the way they can be seen today.
While the majority of the skeletons belong to commoners, there are some major historical figures buried in the depths – French Revolution stars like Georges Danon and Maximilien de Robespierre and artist Charles Perrault (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), to name just a few.
The Paris Catacombs lurk around 65 feet below the streets, and tourists are welcome to visit a bit less than a mile of the total space. It has been illegal to venture into the off-limits galleries since 1955 – though kids and thrill-seekers have been known to access them through hidden entrances.
I wouldn’t try it, though – some have gotten lost among the skeletons for days before being rescued.
If you’re visiting Paris, there are literally hundreds of less-creepy, better-lit spots where you can and should spend your days – though a trip down below would also certainly be worth a (legal) peek.