Paris, the infamous city of France is known for its neoclassical architecture, impeccable cuisine, its romantic atmosphere and culture.
But, little is known about the numerous stacks of human bones which the City of Love stands above – The Paris Catacombs.
The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries which hold the remains of more than six million Parisians. At a depth of 20 meters below the grounds of Paris, lie miles of tunnels bursting with bones telling a story. A story of the city which could no longer contain its dead.
The city that stands above its dead
In the 13th century Paris, the mining of limestone quarries gave birth to an enormous underground city. It consisted of an intricate web of tunnels. Five centuries later, the growing European Hub ran into a major problem: their cemeteries started overflowing.
Residents of the Les Halles neighbourhood near Paris’s oldest and largest cemetery, Les Innocents complained about the unbearable stench of decomposing flesh that filled the air. Even perfume stores claimed that they couldn’t continue their business because of the unpleasant smell.
As a result, in 1763 Louis XV banned further burials in the capital. But, since the Church didn’t want the cemeteries to be disturbed nothing was changed.
In 1780, a prolonged period of rain caused a wall around the Les Innocents to collapse. The property was flooding with old bones and rotten bodies which even caused some outbreaks of diseases. The city authorities then turned to the abandoned quarry tunnels as a solution to their problem. They used them as a dumping ground for these human remains.
It took the inhabitants of several cemeteries to fill each catacomb. To avoid disturbing the locals, they moved the bodies in the dead of night, hidden under a dark cloth on carts. By the end of the process, millions of late Parisians had been moved to the ossuaries with their bones lining the walls from head to toe. Eventually after 1860, as other facilities became available, no fresh bodies were buried in the tunnels.
Apart from this, the tunnels were also used by farmers to grow mushrooms, as hide-outs during World War II and as a home to German bunkers.
The Empire of Death
Today, a little over a mile of the catacombs are open for visitors to explore. The 45-minute walk-through provides visitors with a glance of the narrow and dingy passages of the catacombs, taking them centuries back in history. Inside the ossuary, bones are neatly stacked along the corridors, arranged in different patterns, such as crosses and hearts.
The chilling catacombs have also attracted a group of rebellious individuals who call themselves the ‘Cataphiles’. These Cataphiles spend most of their time exploring off-limit areas of the underground tunnels.
The sign above its entrance reads, “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!” literally translating to “Stop! This is the empire of death!” which then leads one to the vast labyrinth of the underground catacombs whose mysteries are yet to be discovered.
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