Photo by Heracles Kritikos
Photo by Skreidzeleu/Shutterstock
An estimated 6 million people are buried in the Catacombs—more than the entire population of Paris.
In Paris, the streets show off domes, spires, and monuments that attract millions of visitors every year. But beneath this architectural splendor, there’s an entire subterranean world.
The Paris underground has long been romanticized in books and on the screen. (Remember the police chase scene in the Netflix hit Lupin?) There’s such mystery and intrigue that certain habitants can’t ignore the siren song luring them to descend into these secret—and illegal—places. The so-called cataphiles notoriously engage in clandestine activities; urban legends abound of underground cinemas, all-hours parties, and galleries tagged with street art. These contemporary explorers aren’t the first. In the 19th century, abandoned tunnels were used as mushroom farms and breweries; during the Second World War, French Resistance fighters hid in a maze of old quarries stretching 200 miles. (The very buildings so admired on the surface of Paris today were built with limestone excavated from these quarries.)
Today, the only legal place to visit this underground realm is the Paris Catacombs, a nearly mile-long stretch in the 14th arrondissement that takes its name from the famous ossuary housed there. The circuit is lined with walls of skulls and bones, the adjacent stone plaques (etched with the names of old cemeteries) indicating the skeletons’ provenance. Scientists estimate that some 6 million Parisians are buried in the Catacombs: more than the current living population of Paris. With over 500,000 annual visitors, it’s a very popular tourist site.
It all started with a sinkhole. On one ill-fated day back in 1774, a stretch of the former rue d’Enfer (“Hell Street,” near today’s Place Denfert-Rochereau) caved in and swallowed the houses in a billowing cloud of dust. To avoid another catastrophe, King Louis XVI appointed the first ever Inspector of Quarries, who was to explore, excavate, and map the potentially dangerous underground quarry system. Charles-Axel Guillaumot reinforced the galleries and created what historian Graham Robb, in his book Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, called “the largest architectural ensemble in all of Europe” in the Paris underworld.
At the same time that Guillaumot’s cartographers methodically worked, there was chaos in the market area of Les Halles. The neighboring Cimetière des Innocents—the largest cemetery in the city—was overflowing with decomposing bodies after nine centuries of burials had saturated the graveyard. The king ordered the closure of the city’s unsanitary cemeteries, declaring that new ones should be created outside the city limits. And so Guillaumot proposed the creation of an ossuary within the medieval quarries beneath the old Enfer customs house, at the time located at the Paris periphery.
Thus began the nightly transfer of bones, in candlelit processions led by chanting priests, which required 15 months alone to empty Les Innocents. The human remains from other deconsecrated graveyards were also carried in carts, shrouded in a black veil, to their final resting place in the old quarries. From ground level, they were unceremoniously dropped down a well, resulting in shattered bones and skulls missing mandibles. They were then meticulously arranged in artistic walls of femurs, humeri, and tibias.
The creation of the ossuary wasn’t only about sanitation and public health. It also reflected changing cultural practices and philosophical perspectives. “During this age of Enlightenment, the idea of death was pushed from people’s thoughts and views, literally put underground,” says Hélène Furminieux, the director of communications at the Catacombs. Since the Middle Ages, devoutly Catholic Parisians had thought of life as merely a transitive passage before the afterlife. Funerary rites echoed this in their anonymity (there were no individual names on tombstones; mass graves were often used). Despite this fact, historians have still been able to name individuals buried in the Catacombs by studying parish archives.
As a result, we know that nobles like Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Madame de Pompadour, the favorite mistress of King Louis XV, are buried next to le petit peuple. The bones of such famed writers as François Rabelais, Jean Racine, and Jean de La Fontaine mingle with those of the sculptor François Girardon and Louis XIV’s architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. And following the French Revolution, both the guillotined victims and their executioners (like statesman Maximilien Robespierre, the infamous architect of the Reign of Terror) now lie together in eternity. One of the largest necropolises in the world, the Paris Catacombs thus represents a massive mélange of humanity, regardless of class or birthright.
Underground tourism began in 1809 when Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, the subsequent Inspector of Quarries, redesigned the ossuary to receive visitors. Not meant to be macabre nor ghoulish, the circuit was a contemplative meditation on death, the walls engraved with thought-provoking poetry by the likes of Lamartine and Horace. The entrance to the ossuary itself is inscribed with the words: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” (“Halt! This is the empire of death.”) Taking inspiration from ancient Rome, the Catacombs features classical references and Doric columns. The site was so popular it attracted famous visitors like Emperor Francis I of Austria in 1814 and Napoleon III in 1860, and concerts have even been staged there.
The ossuary itself is 800 meters of the circuit. As you walk, you can see the markings of a medieval mason’s chisel, engraved inscriptions of the street names above, the initials of the various Inspectors of Quarries who have verified the strength of walls. (The most recent is beneath the exit pavilion’s boutique, which was unveiled in 2017 as part of a massive renovation of the site.)
The coolest part of all? The black painted line on the ceiling that Furminieux calls “Ariadne’s thread.” Before electricity was installed in the Catacombs in 1972, visitors were equipped only with a candle, often getting lost at intersections. To find their way out of the labyrinth, they could follow the black line. Even today there’s a labyrinthine feel to the Catacombs, with twists and turns sometimes dead-ending into doors or locked iron gates.
It’s a sensory experience: You can hear dripping water, the wind from a ventilation fan, the rumbling of the RER train. And if you look closely at the stone walls, you’ll encounter marine fossils embedded in the rock, a testament to the period 45 million years ago when Paris was covered by a tropical sea—the enormity of geological time dwarfing the brief lives of the humans whose skeletons adorn the Catacombs.
The full-rate ticket price is 29 euros (around US$32), with last-minute tickets priced at 15 euros (about US$17). Tickets for children age 5–17 years are 5 euros (US$6), but keep in mind that the ossuary may not be appropriate for young children. With narrow passageways and stairs, this site is not wheelchair accessible.
The visit is one hour and the temperature is 57 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so dress appropriately with footwear meant for walking. (Book a guided tour via the group booking form on the website and you’ll be privy to parts of the Catacombs that are usually off limits to other visitors.) These include the replica of a Roman tomb where Catholic mass was once celebrated, a well of turquoise water, and stunning sculptures carved into a wall by a quarry worker depicting the Menorca fortress where he was kept prisoner as a soldier in the army of Louis XV.
A notorious line used to wrap around the custom house for visitors waiting their turn to descend the 130 steps into the darkness. This is no longer the case. When Paris cultural sites reopened after the pandemic lockdown, new health restrictions were imposed requiring reservations to be made online in advance for a particular hour. “As a result, the visitor experience is streamlined and more fluid,” Furminieux says.
Last but not least: The ossuary is a place of repose for centuries of deceased Parisians, and it’s important to visit with respect. There have been stories of badly behaved tourists stealing bones; sometimes they’ve been mailed back, along with letters of remorse. Bags are thus searched at the exit.
>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to Paris
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