When you head to Paris, a trip to the Catacombs may not be on the top of your list. But, I was raised in a family who thought cemeteries were cool, so the morbid doesn’t so much creep me out, as it does fascinate me. I am raising my kids much in the same way I was, with a healthy understanding of death. Each trip we take typically includes a visit to the local historic cemetery.
The Catacombs of Paris were created at the end of the 18th century to serve as an ossuary. At the time, Parisians wanted the largest cemetery, the Cimetiere des Saints-Innocents closed for public health reasons. The city then determined that all the remains from all the cemeteries in Paris would be stored in these catacombs. The human remains were moved into old limestone quarries which were expanded to make room for everyone. Currently, the Catacombs are the final resting place for almost six million Parisians.
In the early 19th century, the Catacombs of Paris were opened to the public.
When you first enter the Catacombs, you climb down a narrow spiral stairway to the old quarries. At first, the halls are open and bare, and there isn’t much to see. The walls have markings to show which streets you are walking under, and notes to show what changes and reinforcements were made to the space and when. It’s dark and damp, but Mr. Man was proud to show us the way and tell us all about the skeletons we were going to see.
The entrance to the ossuary reads “Stop! This is the Empire of Death!”
The next 780 meters are corridors filled with human remains. At first, the bones were just piled in the space, but around 1810, the general inspector of the Quarries has the remains organized in an orderly, and often beautiful fashion. Skulls and large bones are arranged in patterns to form a retaining wall, and smaller bones are piled behind these walls.
Mr. Man never did get nervous, and enjoyed telling me all about the different people who found themselves resting in the Catacombs. Through the rooms are many monuments and plaques with quotes reflecting on the fragility of human life. I wish I spoke more French so I could have translated them for you! Even though I could only understand a gist from my limited vocabulary, it is a very somber experience to be surrounded by these remains, so beautifully arranged.
There are only three cases of people being directly buried in the Catacombs (all of which occurred during the french revolution). The victims of the massacres of September 1792, victims of the fighting at the Reveillon factory on 18 May 1789, and at the Tuileries on 10 August 1792.
It’s an incredible place to visit if you can handle small, dark, damp spaces. The kids handled the experience well, and I highly recommend a visit to this historic place if you ever find yourself in Paris!