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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.