Six million people beneath your feet. Meticulously arranged and organized. Hundreds and hundreds of years of history. The Paris Catacombs are famous for being one of the most ominous and interesting sites below the city’s streets. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Catacombs and experiencing its allure, and I found myself curious about the nuances of the former mining tunnels.
Into the Past
The Catacombs of Paris came out of necessity. The Les Innocents cemetery was rancid and overflowing. The cemetery, which since the mid-12th century had been Paris’s primary burial site, was a home to remains dating back hundreds of years. To account for all the city’s dead, the church began to place the bones of the deceased within the cemetery walls. Galleries, they were called. It became a mass grave.
Things became complicated when the basement of the church began to collapse under the weight of the cemetery. This was in the late 18th century. Consider the amount of bodies that must have been amassed by then, as burials with the Les Innocents cemetery did not stop despite the overwhelming conditions. Mines and other subterranean areas within the city were put up for consideration as the situation became more and more desperate.
Thus began the moving of millions of bones into tunnels beneath the surface of the city. The transfer took two years. The cemetery at Les Innocents was not the only burial ground emptied, it was only the largest and most problematic. Bones from at least five cemeteries were exhumed and moved.
The Catacombs Today
When you walk through the Catacombs of Paris, you are experiencing the bones of revolutionaries and soldiers. The bones of the elite, of the peasants and workers. The bones of the sick and the bones of the deprived. All of them together, connected. Where else might you see such a gathering? A true city, and community, of the dead.
The arrangement of bones is fascinating. In the early 19th century, an effort was headed by the Paris Mine Inspection Service to transform the catacombs from a mere collection of the deceased into a mausoleum of sorts. Walls of femurs and skulls were constructed to contain the bones. Various patterns were used to compliment the dead. Traditional cemetery trappings were added to various sections of the tunnels, too: these included arches and inscriptions, as well as displays and memorials. It is truly a wonder seeing bones transformed into such beauty.
Since its renovation, the Catacombs have been open to the public. People have been witnessing the site for nearly two hundred years. Though it has been closed a few times due to vandalism, the Catacombs have endured through revolution, upheaval, and war. Of late, it has become an extremely popular tourist site, with lines stretching far away from its entrance in Montparnasse.
Through My Eyes
My experience in the Catacombs was hair-raising. Never before had I witnessed so much history in one compact space. “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead” reads the entrance. And an empire it is, truly. There I was, walking through the lives of six million people. The empty eye sockets of skull atop skull staring me down. As an American, I almost felt out of place, like I was interrupting something profound. But there was nothing, only silence. The air in the cavern chilled me to my bones.
The attention to detail is astounding, almost haunting, as one display contained a heart shaped out of skulls, another a small diorama of buildings and other structures. Clever and beautiful, and quite utilitarian. You almost forget that you are underground, that there is an entire city bustling above your head. It almost humbles Paris: not only is it unique above the ground, but below as well. In a very different way, of course. It is quite literally a testament to the depth of such a city.
You may say that there are bones beneath every settlement, below every forest, every plain, every step, wherever you walk, but it’s nothing compared to the feeling of stacks and patterns of visible history: bodies of bones, an empire of the dead.
When you will sleep, O dusky beauty mine,
Beneath a monument fashioned of black marble,
When you will have for bedroom and mansion
Only a rain-swept vault and a hollow grave,
When the slab of stone, oppressing your frightened breast
And your flanks now supple with charming nonchalance,
Will keep your heart from beating, from wishing,
And your feet from running their adventurous course,
The tomb, confidant of my infinite dreams
(For the tomb will always understand the poet)
Through those long nights from which all sleep is banned, will say:
“What does it profit you, imperfect courtesan,
Not to have known why the dead weep?”
— And like remorse the worm will gnaw your skin.
-Charles Baudelaire (translated by William Aggeler)