The Catacombs of Paris: Underneath the city of light lies a chamber of darkness and death

Meet the family: some of the residents of the Paris catacombs. Image: AFP/Getty.

In the ground beneath Paris, hundreds of miles of tunnels run like arteries. Underneath the streets lie spaces of all kinds: canals and reservoirs, prisons, crypts and bank vaults, wine cellars transformed into nightclubs and galleries. None are as creepy as the infamous Catacombs.

At a depth of 20 metres, equivalent to the size of a five storey building, the catacombs lie deeper than the Metro and sewer systems. These 200 miles of old caves, quarries and tunnels are full to bursting with the bones of deceased Parisians from centuries past. The history of the Catacombs is one of gory necessity: the story of a city which could no longer contain its dead.

The catacombs have existed since the13th century, when the mining of limestone quarries to provide bricks for the city’s buildings created as a side effect an entire underground city: the carrières de Paris, an intricate web of tunnels, lying mostly under the southern part of the metropolis.


Parisians had taken material from the ground to build upwards – but later they found that they needed to reuse the spaces they'd created below. By the 18th century, the cemeteries had started overflowing.

In Les Halles, near Paris' biggest cemetery, Les Innocents, the stench was unbearable. Perfume stores complained that they couldn't do business: the air was so thick with the smell of rotten flesh that no scent could penetrate the odour. In 1763, Louis XV banned any further burials inside the capital, but the Church didn't want cemeteries disturbed or moved, and so nothing else was done.

Then, in 1780, there was a prolonged period of spring rain. That May, the weight of damp ground full of bodies caused the wall of a restaurant cellar in the Rue de la Lingerie to collapse. Rotting bodies and old bones flooded the property; outbreaks of disease followed.

Some of the tunnels. Image: AFP/Getty.

At the same time, by (un)happy coincidence, the walls of the local quarries were beginning to cave in. The solution to both problems seemed obvious. In 1786, the city authorities began to empty the cemeteries, and move human remains to the abandoned quarry tunnels.

It took the residents of several cemeteries to fill each catacomb. In order not to disturb the locals, the bodies were transferred in the dead of night, hidden under dark cloth on the back of carts. As they passed through the darkened streets, priests would chant for the morbid cargo.  By the end of the process, over 6m late Parisians had been moved to the as the ossuaries, their bones covering the walls from head to toe.

During the Revolution, the dead were buried directly in the catacombs. The new arrivals in this period included both Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre. But after 1860, as other facilities became available, no fresh bodies were added to the tunnels.

The catacombs of Paris are not unique: in medieval Europe, it was quite common to dig up bones and store them in charnel houses and ossuaries, in order to make space in cemeteries for more corpses.

You can find such piles of bones in the Wamba ossuary in northern Spain's Church of Santa Maria, Valladolid, or the ossuary of St Leonard's in the Kent town of Hythe. In the 16th century Cappela dos Ossos, in the Portuguese town of Evora, near Lisbon, 5,000 individuals, thought to be war and plague victims, are embedded decoratively into the chapel walls.

Some of the catacombs' older residents. Image: DJTox/Wikimedia Commons.

The tunnels beneath Paris have had other uses, too. The quarries were mined up until the 18th century, and used by farmers to grow mushrooms after that. During World War II, French Resistance fighters used some as hide-outs; the Germans built bunkers in others.

Nowadays there are groups that like to explore the passages under Paris their own way. These “cataphiles” are mostly young rebellious folk, undeterred by the fact that is has been illegal to enter the Catacombs without official guidance since 1955. They spend their time exploring, attracted by the idea of being underground both literally and metaphorically


Until the late 1980's it was possible to enter the tunnels from a number of points, including some doorways in schools and other buildings. Today, though, many are closed off, and the cataphiles have to be more cunning, both when gaining access (this often involves ropes) and when avoiding the police unit who patrol the passageways. It isn’t a hobby for those with claustrophobia or a nervous disposition.

Today just over a mile of these meandering tunnels are open to the public. The entrance is located in Paris' 14th arrondissement, at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. Paying visitors walk under a doorway, with a haunting inscription above it: "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" (“Stop! This is the empire of death!”) Never have truer words been spoken.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.