August 17, 2014
Written by Roxanne
I have to admit, the Catacombs were not on my to do/must see list. Honestly, I think it is a bit creepy and a little disrespectful to want to see the remains of the long ago dead. But, believe it or not, it was Aurora who expressed an interest in seeing the Catacombs. It all started when we were touring another site in Paris and there were a number of books for purchase. She spotted one on the Catacombs and started asking questions. I tried my best to answer them, but noticed she was still confused about why the “bones” were moved; so when she asked that we buy the book I gladly handed over the Euros. Little did I think she would want to actually see it! But she asked; and since Paris was her bucket list place of choice we booked a tour because we don’t like waiting in lines (in August there is a wait of 3-4 hours to get in).
What we know about the Catacombs:
The catacombs are a series of labyrinth tunnels that are 20 metres beneath the city of Paris. Located south of the former city gate Place Denfert Rochereau, they hold the remains of approximately 6 million people. It fills a section of caverns and tunnels that were formerly Paris’ stone mine/quarry for limestone rock, which was the dominant building supply of earlier times. Due to a series of disasterous sinkholes that occurred in the 1700’s from collapses of the tunnels, the city of Paris began a process to map out and reinforce the tunnel weak spots to prevent further sinkhole disasters.
At the same time that Paris was addressing the issue of the tunnels, Paris was also was experiencing problems with it’s cemetaries. Paris’ population was growing and so was the large population of Paris’ poor. The existing cemetaries were becoming overcrowded. When there was no room left in the cemeteries, they dug huge pits that they threw the deceased into. The worst cemetery for this was the Cimetière des Innocents. To make matters worse, these poorly managed cemetaries had become a safety and public health hazard. These cemetaries of concern contained approximately six million deceased. Paris also needed to expanding its land base and required further land to accomodate the increasing population. Due to the aforementioned issues, the idea of transferring the remains of the six million deceased Parisians to the tunnels took hold in the late 18th century.
Alexandre Lenoir first had the idea to use empty underground tunnels on the outskirts of the Paris as an ossuary. His successor, Thiroux de Crosne, chose a place and the exhumation and transfer of many of Paris’ dead to the underground sepulture began in 1786. The Cimetière des Innocents was the first to begin transfer the remains of the dead to the catacombs in 1786. It took two years working day and night to transfer all the bones from Cimetière des Innocents. It took from 1786 to the middle of the 1800’s to completely move the six million deceased to the tunnels. At first the catacombs were merely a place to place the bones of the dead. At looking at the bones that are behind gates and pillars, it looks like they there were just dumped there. It wasn’t until Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury assumed responsibility for the ossuary that it became what we see today. He oversaw the rearrangement in the tunnels, of skulls and bones to create symbolism, symmetry and artistic patterns. He also added old cemetery decorations to the underground mortuary to turn it into what you see within the catacombs today. His thinking was to rearrange and place new incoming bones in a more respectful and artistic way, than the previous method of just dumping the bones in piles. Today you will see skulls and bones in the shape of a heart, rainbow, skull and cross bones and other geometrical or artistic patterns.
In the late 19h century, the underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale until the early 20th century. It has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1867 on. They used to even have parties, with live music, down there. Today you wait hours in line to view the catacombs and there isn’t an orchestra playing music for you.
We booked our tour online and on August 17th got up early to catch the metro to meet our tour guide outside the door at 9:15am. By the time we had arrived at approximately 9:15am the lineup was about halfway around the block. Our tour guide was to have a yellow umbrella; however we did not see anyone with a yellow umbrella. Finally, she showed up at about 9:30. We found out she had been standing in line waiting for us. (Opps, guess we missed seeing her waiting. ) The Catacombes didn’t open until 10am so we continued to wait in line. We got in at approximately 10:15. Not bad, booking the tour preventing us from waiting number of hours waiting in line.
We entered, our guide purchased the tickets and we began our journey down the 130 steps down a winding spiral staircase. By the time we were down we were all dizzy. Once down we walked about a mile through narrow stone tunnels. There wasn’t much to see except for the odd brick on the wall with a date on. Just prior to entering the area where the bones were there were stone carvings of the Fort of Port Mahon that was done by one of the quarrymen.
At the entrance door of the ossuary, carved in stone above the door is written “ARRETE: C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT” (Stop, here lies the empire of the dead).
A labyrinth of bones met us as we entered the room. Millions and millions of bones and skulls neatly stacked lead us through the tunnels.
Skulls in outlines the shape of a heart, or a rainbow, femurs making cross bones.
The walls were made primarily of femurs bones.
Behind these nicely stacked bones, are bones tossed as high as one’s shoulders. These bones were often broken and just pushed behind the nice stack.
During the tour we got to learn the history of the tunnels; as far back as the Romans excavating the limestone for building, the history of the many violent conflicts that occurred simultaneously to use of the tunnels, some famous and infamous people whose remains are in the catacombs, we saw what we believe to be Victor Hugo’s graffiti signature on the stone wall, heard about the WWII history of Nazi and French Resistance use of the tunnels, and more recently the current use of the tunnels by “Cataphiles” on the legal and illegal sides of the tunnels. Yes, by being tourists in the tunnels, we officially became “Cataphiles”. There is even a special division of the Paris Police, “CataCops” to patrol and police the tunnels as there are apparently hundreds of kilometres of tunnels on the “illegal” side, which are being explored by “Cataphiles” who are thrill seekers, researchers, archealogists, sceintists (who monitor cracks and tetontic plate movement), treasure hunters (as there are legends of treasures being stored in the tunnels), and people who want to hang out and party in the tunnels. There even once was a operational film theatre that was shut down by the police. Our tour guide told us a few catacomb legend and ghost stories and constantly reminded us of the dangers of exploring the illegal side as many people have been lost and some never found, from exploring the uncharted tunnels. There are even unresolved property issues, as by law the tunnels below private property techinically belong to the property owner and many property owners have their own basement access to publically undiscovered sections of the tunnels. THe history and use of the tunnels of the past and present was simply amazing, and we had a very well informed and excellent guide on our tour. Our hour long tour turned into a 3 hour tour. It was wonderful. We are so glad we went.
In case you are wondering, no we did not see any ghosts; but they say they are there. Maybe if you go to the Catacombs, they will be there to welcome you.