When you hear the word 'Paris’, the images that are conjured up in everyone’s minds have a consistent thread—lovers embracing on the cobbled streets of the Champs-Élysées, the eponymous city lights reflecting off the Seine, the citizens in high-fashion enjoying a meal at an elegant bistro. But what is seldom seen in the mind’s eye is what lies beneath, in the French capital’s catacombs.
In the late-18th century, Paris was faced with a major public health crisis. The cemeteries, some of which had been in use since a millennium, were overflowing with the remains of the dead. There are reports that at times, corpses were uncovered in the process of burying the deceased. Parisians living near Les Innocents, the city’s oldest cemetery, complained of the foul smell the rotting flesh exuded, prompting Louis XV to forbid all burials within the capital in 1763.
Nothing further was done until 1780, when unrelenting rain caused the wall of the cemetery to collapse, throwing corpses right on to the city streets. The grotesque image necessitated change, and from 1786, the remains were shifted to the tunnels beneath the city, which would be known from then on as the Paris Municipal Ossuary. The former limestone quarries became the dead’s new resting place, with the move taking 12 years to complete.
From around when the French Revolution began in 1789 until 1860, the city’s dead were buried there, adding to the six million-odd skeletons that occupied the tunnels. Among the famous figures that rest within the catacombs is Maximilien de Robespierre, the revolutionary whose ‘Reign of Terror’ after the revolution caused many to be disillusioned with the country’s new-found ideals and provided the impetus for the Gothic movement in Romanticism.
Today, the catacombs can be explored by tourists, but only a fraction of the supposed 800 hectares of tunnels are open to the public. A marvel of macabre beauty, a walk through the catacombs provides an experience unlike any other. The proximity to death and the decoration of human bones may not be for the faint of heart, but the eerie and grotesque mausoleum with careful arrangements of femurs and skulls has a beauty of its own.
The ossuary is also an important historical and cultural site. Many walls contain inscriptions from before and after the bones were moved in, and some areas even contain sculptures crafted by the quarrymen. One of the most unnerving inscription can be found above a doorway near the entrance, which reads, “Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" ("Stop, this is the empire of death!").
A vestibule before the entrance to the ossuary is used, in the modern day, to host yearly exhibitions. Guided tours of the catacombs are available to adults and attract around 500,000 tourists annually. Unfortunately, the persisting coronavirus lockdown is keeping us from doing any kind of exploring at the moment, but a virtual tour of the catacombs is available online for anyone with an insatiable urge to witness the morbid treasures that lie within.