The Paris Catacombs Houses Over Six Million Corpses: How Did They Get There?

It is the world’s largest necropolis a mere 20 meters under Paris. And the dark underworld contains the stuff horror films are made of.

The dark tunnels beneath the ‘City of Lights’ houses the world-famous collection macabre collection of skulls and bones known as the Paris Catacombs.

Hidden within is the haunting tale of medieval life, lives abruptly ended by wars, plagues, and the sickening sound of the guillotine.

When the city runs out of room to place their departed, there are few options for them. While they can expand to the perimeter of the city, there is also the option of building cemeteries on top of the old ones. Or as the Parisians did in the late eighteenth century, you can house all your macabre collection in underground tunnels, called the Paris catacombs, and earn a fortune exhibiting it to tourists.

Protests By Residents Led To The Creation Of The Paris Catacombs In The 18th Century

There came a time when the cemeteries in Paris were overflowing and neighboring communities could not live due to the stench of rotting flesh. The residents living close to Les Innocents were among the worst sufferers. Many businesses, including perfume stores, had to close down.

It wasn’t until 1780 that the administration was forced into action. That year a sustained spell of spring rain led to a collapse of a wall around the Les Innocents cemetery. The neighborhood was covered with rotting corpses. The city finally got into the act.

Old tunnels had existed since the thirteenth century under Parisian streets. There were the remnants of limestone quarries, a ubiquitous feature of Paris then and which were used to build the thriving city.

Louis Xv Has Little Choice But Move Ahead With The Shifting Plans

Paris chose the latter option over time of disposing of its dead body. This is how the Paris catacombs came into being. When the Parisians were done with the first round of burials, the bones and other remnants of 6 million of the departed came to rest in the Paris Catacombs.

The bones and skulls came from the five-story underground cemetery and went into the defunct limestone quarries. The cemeteries began to be emptied. An edict was issued in 1763 banning burials inside Paris. However, Louis XV faced opposition from the powerful Church as they did not want the cemeteries moved or disturbed in any way. His successor Louis XVI continued the effort. Between six and seven million bones were moved into the Paris catacombs over 12 years. Some of the bones in the Paris catacombs date back over 12 centuries during the Merovingian rule.

During and after the revolution, bodies were buried in the Paris catacombs. Among those who were buried here include Jean-Paul Marat, among the radical voices of the French Revolution, and Robespierre, who was also a radical figure during the French Revolution and even during the Reign of Terror that followed.

By 1860 Paris stopped using the Paris catacombs to bury bodies.

One Mile Of The Paris Catacombs Open To Visitors

Around a mile of the ossuaries are open to the public. Visitors enter from the entrance near the 14th administrative district. It is a 45-minute walk through the Paris catacombs. Visitors have the option of taking guides. There are also audio guides available for a modest 3 euros (around $4).

A sign at the entrance proclaims, ‘Stop! This is the empire of death!’ the bones inside the Paris catacombs are arranged according to the cemetery from which they were transported.

While some are stacked in line with the corridors, others are arranged in various geometrical patterns creating images such as crosses. Visitors are also greeted by sculptures created by one of the quarrymen. These were created years before the bones were brought into the Paris catacombs. Among the statues and other creations is a replica of the Port Mahon fortress.

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