The city of Paris is built on top of rich Lutetian limestone deposits, and it was this stone that built most of the city. This stone had been quarried since the time of the Romans, mostly from suburban locations away from the main areas where people lived. Mines were haphazard and not locations were not documented, and once the vein of stone was quarried the mines were abandoned and forgotten. As the city of Paris grew, people ran into the mines when they were building with disastrous results. A series of mine cave-ins in 1774 highlighted the undermining of the Left Bank. So what to do? Fill them with bones!
Wait, what? Let’s back up a bit. In Roman times, both the Right and Left Bank of the Seine were inhabited. The first burial grounds were on the southern outskirts of the Left Bank settlement. Once the Romans left and the Franks invaded, Parisians abandoned the Left Bank and its burial ground. Because the Right Bank was extremely marshy, cemeteries were put on high ground right in the center of town. This continued until 1780, when the edict was passed that no graves could be intra muros, or within the city walls. The problem was there were cemeteries from the previous centuries of life in Paris. On May 30, 1708, the basement wall of a property adjoining the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents collapsed under the weight of the mass grave behind it. Even before that, people in the area said the smell of decomposing flesh was so strong nothing could cover it. Disease was running rampant. Something had to be done.
On April 7, 1886, the former Tombe-Issoire quarries were blessed and consecrated. From that moment on, the “close de la Tombe-Issoire” became a nightly progression of black covered wagons carrying the millions of Parisian dead. The remains from five cemeteries were moved into the newly christened Catacombs- Saints-Innocents, Saint Etienne-des-Gres, Madeleine Cemetery, Errancis Cemetery and Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux. It took twelve years to transfer all the bones into the Catacombs, two years for all the bodies in the cemetery of Saints-Innocents alone. Some of the inhabitants of the Catacombs were famous. These included François Rabelais (between 1483 and 1494 -1553), Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1698) and Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), the sculptor François Girardon (1628 – 1715), the painter Simon Vouet (I590 – 1649), the architects Salomon de Brosse (1571-1626), Claude Perrault (1613 – 1688) and also Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646 – 1708). During the French Revolution bodies were buried directly in the Catacombs. The Swiss Guard who were killed storming the Tuileries palace and the victims of the massacres in September 1792 were all taken there.. Those notables are Lavoisier (1743 – 1794), Madame Elisabeth (1764 – 1794), Camille and Lucile Desmoulins (1760 – 1794 and 1771 – 1794), Danton (1759 – 1794) Jean-Paul Marat (1743 -1793) and Maximilien de Robespierre (1758 – 1794). The final transfer of bones was done during the renovation of Paris by Georges-Eugene Haussmann, and was completed in 1860.
During this time, the Catacombs were cleared for visitors by Hencart de Thury, the Inspector of Quarries, and by 1814 people were touring the place. The Catacombs are open to the general public today, but only part of the tunnel network. It has been illegal since 1955 to enter any other part of the Catacombs. The long maze of dark galleries and narrow passages are 20 meters beneath the Parisian streets in the very heart of Paris. The bones are arranged in designs and patterns that are beautiful if not a bit macabre. Above the entrance, the Alexandrine verse “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” [Halt, this is the realm of Death ] is written. This is only one of the many poetic verses that accompany the bones in their resting place.
Urban explorers called Cataphiles have explored much of the off limits sections illegally, and some of the spaces have been repurposed by them. In fact a secret amphitheater complete with a movie theater, seats, restaurant and fully stocked bar was found. There was an Airbnb contest in 2015 to stay in the Paris Catacombs Halloween night. Brazilian Pedro Arrunda won after submitting an essay on why he was brave enough to spend the night there. He and a guest were rewarded with a double bed in a candle-lit stone chamber, as well dinner, a violin concert and a storyteller to get them in the Halloween spirit.
I’m not sure I’d like sleeping with the remains of roughly 6 million people, but to each their own. And on that note, sleep tight, dear readers
Sources available on request