The Catacombs Of Paris: Who Are These People?
Good grief, I’m glad we bought tickets ahead of time. In fact, the line was so long that I felt like Beyonce with my pre-purchased tickets.I was pretty smug, scoffing at all of those poor, unenlightened people who weren’t as smart as we were. 500,000 people visited the Catacombs in 2016, so, if you’re planning a visit, BUY TICKETS AHEAD OF TIME. You can thank me later.
After walking down one of those curly, nauseating staircases, we were there (that staircase goes on FORever). It was damp, stale and really chilly. As we walked down the gravel path to the actual catacombs (which also took FORever), I thought about the Nazis who held bunkers down there during WWII. Victor Hugo referenced the tunnels in Les Miserables and Parisians would regularly hold concerts here. The underground tunnels themselves go on for 200 miles, but the touring area of the Catacombs is about one mile.
According to The Catacombs of Paris issue of the Connaissance des Arts magazine, the Catacombs opened to the public in 1809. In the mid-1700s the city of Paris started to stink and everything became tainted from the fumes of a few thousand decaying corpses. Bodies were typically buried in cemeteries near churches, left to rot and then their bones were dug up and moved. However, the population exploded and, well, so did the population of dead bodies.
At this time, they decided to move cemeteries to the outskirts of town to distance themselves from all of these dead folks taking up space and spreading disease. For example, Pere La Chaise cemetery was established in 1804 on the outskirts of Paris by Napoleon and, at the time, it was considered to be too far out for anyone to bother with being buried there. I say, “you snooze you lose” to those folks that didn’t buy plots in that cemetery because, oh man, it is a beauty. AND you could’ve been buried next to Oscar Wilde (and approximately 1,000,000 other people). I wrote a popular post about Pere La Chaise a little while back and you can read about it here.
So there they were, several cemeteries overflowing with bodies, some of them uncovered (come on, that’s GROSS). It was so gross that a perfume shop near the cemetery was unable to stay open due to the stench (you’d think that stuff would be flying off the shelves!). At one point, a wall around the cemetery collapsed and bodies fell out, sliding into a nearby neighborhood. This cemetery, Saints Innocents, was by far the largest, containing around 2,000,000 people collected over 600 years. This is where parishes buried their dead, along with people that died in the hospital or on the streets. The oldest remains found there were 1200 years old.
Finally, it was in 1777 that Louis XVI came to his senses. In order to house all of these corpses, he appointed someone to reconstruct the underground quarries that were collapsing in Paris. The first bodies were dumped there in 1786.
How did they move these people, you ask? They dug them up, sometimes having to dig through 10 feet of corpse-littered earth. The bodies were thrown on wagons and, with clergy leading the way, the wagons made their way to the Catacombs, leaving the bodies. behind. It took 15 months to 2 years (reports vary) to move all of these remains because they only transported remains at night. At first, the remains were dumped just like piles of dirty laundry. Eventually, the bones were rearranged in the Catacombs for a more aesthetically pleasing look, with the long bones and skulls being placed in front in order to hold other bones behind them. Every year, crumbling bones in the front are removed and replaced with “fresher” bones.
Walking through, there were plaques commemorating the dates that the quarries were updated (they are continually worked on so they don’t collapse) and dates that bones were deposited. There are inscriptions from the Holy Bible, philosophers and poets.
Before and during the French Revolution, victims of political violence were also taken in by the Catacombs. Some notables who can be found (somewhere) in the Catacombs are: Charles Perrault (author of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood), Jean de La Fontaine (author of Fables and one of the most widely read French poets), Maxmilien Robespierre (played a role in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, beheaded in 1794) and Antoine Lavoisier (considered to be the father of modern chemistry, also beheaded in 1794).
It was overwhelming to hang out and contemplate the number of bones that are down there. I’m one of those overthinking types (to put it mildly) and I tried to imagine who all of these bones and skulls had originally belonged to. What was their story? Did that skull belong to the man who owned the aforementioned perfume shop near the cemetery? Did that femur belong to the dude that let the guillotine blade fall on Lavoisier’s neck? I guess this is the sort of thing I do whenever I go to a cemetery, but this was different. There was no way of knowing who these bones belonged to and I had sort of an existential crisis: WHAT IS THE POINT OF LIFE IF YOU END UP BEING A LONELY FEMUR IN A PILE OF SIX MILLION BONES?
Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, maybe not (trust me, I’m not). Either way, it was such a unique experience and, existential crisis or not, I HIGHLY recommend a visit. Being surrounded by the bones of millions of people who died 300+ years ago has a way of reminding you of how insignificant your problems are.
And that’s definitely not a bad thing.
Have you been here? What are your thoughts on hanging out with bones all afternoon? Scroll down to the comment section and tell me ALL about it!