Beneath the sprawling lanes and streets of Paris, considered one of the most beautiful cities of the world, lies a scary and formidable world of the dead. Preserved in a vast underground tunnel system are millions and millions of human bones. These tunnels are called the Catacombs of Paris and their history is a fascinating one.
The Catacombs are a small part of a vast underground tunnel system beneath the city. For hundreds of years, the vast limestone deposits beneath Paris had been mined by the residents to build the city. The open-pit quarries had existed since the first century.
Starting from the 13th century onwards, the quarries ran underground as the city above continued to expand and flourish. The underground stone quarries gradually led to the formation of a vast underground tunnel system. At most places, the tunnel system almost runs parallel to the streets of Paris.
Corpses everywhere, decomposed carcasses pouring into the neighbourhood
As the city of Paris flourished and progressed as a major centre for politics, trade, art and culture, millions of inhabitants had lived and died in the city by the 17th century. The city gradually became so overwhelmed with buried corpses that by the 18th century, the city literally ran out of burial spaces.
Often, corpses would come uncovered. During heavy rains, the rotten human remains and bones would start flowing into nearby residential areas from the cemeteries. Paris was literally becoming swamped with dead bodies and was choking with the stench.
As per the Smithsonian, residents in the Les Halles neighbourhood near the famous Les Innocents cemetery were the first ones to complain about the non-stop stench. Now, the Holy Innocents cemetery was Paris’ ‘go-to’ cemetery and has been in use for centuries. Millions of Parisians were buried there. The cemetery also had numerous mass graves. Victims of the 1348 plague, unclaimed bodies from accidents, homeless victims brought from morgues, were all buried there.
Paris was drowning in stench, but Church wanted its money
In the 1700s, residents of the area started complaining of a constant, strong smell of decomposing flesh. Even the famous perfume shops in Paris started complaining that they can’t do business as no amount of fragrance seemed to whisk the smell of rot and death away. Exhausted, King Louise XV ordered that non-Parisians cannot be buried in the cemetery. He did want to do more, but the Church intervened. The Church was against moving the famous cemetery because it brought good profits.
As per reports, a burial at Les Innocents was in high demand, and people paid good money to the church to book burial sites in the cemetery. Those who could not afford nice plots, ended up in mass graves that sometimes had 1500 corpses. The cemetery was becoming so putrid that some accounts claim the very air around it could change the colour of fabric and cause fresh meat to rot.
Meanwhile, Parisians were literally choking under the smell and subsequently, there were cases of human remains coming uncovered and overflowing into nearby streets and houses. In 1780, heavy rains caused the collapse of a wall around the cemetery and all hell broke loose.
Rotting corpses spilled over into homes, streets and shops. Finally the then king Louise XVI had had enough. He ordered that not just Les Innocents, but all human remains in all cemeteries of the city will be moved underground to the old quarries.
Took years and years to dig up the corpses and carry them to the underground tunnels
However, even with a royal order and large scale efforts, there were so many corpses buried in Paris that it took 12 long years to move them all below to the underground quarries. On April 7, 1786, six years after the Les Innocents cemetery was closed, the ‘Tombe-Issoire’ quarries were bennedicted and consecrated by the Catholic Church. The part of the underground quarry which was used to house the bones was named the municipal ossuary and later called the Catacombs.
An estimated 6-7 million human bones were moved underground. Some of the oldest bones dated back to the Merovingian era, nearly 1000 years old. The transfer of bones from the other cemeteries around Paris continued for decades, till 1814. Though a part of the ossuary was opened for the public in 1809, the arrangement of the bones and structural changes were carried out several times.
In 1860, another urban development project in Paris saw another round of ‘bone deposit’ in the Catacombs. In 2002, the Catacombs were formally attached to the Carnavalet Museum and was actively promoted as Paris’ heritage.
Candle and soaps from human remains
The stories of horror of the millions of dead bodies ‘choking’ Paris are not just limited to the cemeteries and the transfer of bones. Organic remains need oxygen to decompose properly. The lack of space and mounds of bodies piled above each other had caused a strange kind of decomposition in the cemetery grounds.
When the exhumation work started at the cemetery, it was observed that the human remains had turned to fat due to a lack of oxygen. So much fat was recovered at the cemetery that making candles and soaps (yes, yuck) from human remains became a fashion in the fashionable city.
Only a small part of the vast ossuary is open for public viewing. The public part is situated at the 14th arrondissement of Paris and extends up to around 1.7 km. For small entry fees, people can descend into the ‘city of the dead’ at Place Denfert-Rochereau.
However, the Catacombs extend far beyond the publicly open parts and there are several urban legends of mystery, of people getting lost and never found, of secret voices and much more. The Catacombs are at least 20 metres down from the ‘surface’ of Paris, below the sewer lines and Metro lines. Venturing into the restricted sections is illegal and may result in arrest.