Many years have passed since my time in high school French class, but what I read here is “Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead.” What a perfect description of the Catacombs of Paris.
Down, down, down we went. We nearly became dizzy going down and around the circular staircase for one hundred thirty two steps. Down below the Paris Metro. Down below the sewers of Paris. Down into the darkness and a constant temperature of 65 degrees. In this subterranean system of tunnels are the bones of over six million Parisians. There are one hundred eighty miles of tunnels. How this ossuary came into existence is a most interesting story and the tour was a highlight of our time in Paris, especially for Logan. He loves ghost tours, so we knew he would love our morning in the Paris Catacombs.
It seems that when the Romans came to Paris, they loved building with limestone. Unfortunately, some of their earliest structures crumbled due to the softness of the stone. Before long, they realized that the limestone far below the ground was stronger, so they began digging deeper and deeper, creating a maze of quarries underground. Even long after the Romans left Paris, the mining continued. The tunneling weakened the ground above and there were some catastrophic sinkholes. The underground mining was halted in 1810, but prior to that, Louis XVI commissioned an investigative team in 1776 to map the tunnels in order to find the weak areas and stabilize them. Indeed, the team continues their work to this day. When you venture below the ground, you will discover a written legend on the walls of the tunnels which identifies the person who inspected that portion of the tunnel and when it was mapped. Additionally, the team thought that it would help if they identified the street above so that others would get their “bearings,” so you will find the street names carved into the stone walls. A primitive ventilation system is still in use to this day. There is also a black line on the ceiling. If you get lost, just follow the black line to find your way out.
The miners who toiled below the streets of the city were well paid for the dangerous work they did. Supposedly, working long hours underground for many years led to total blindness in some of the miners. Many superstitions and dubious legends evolved through the years. One of the most persistent rumors was that if a miner saw what appeared to be a green man walking through the mines, he would be dead within a year’s time.
So how did all the bones end up in the tunnels? Well, Paris cemeteries were full and the city needed room to bury more dead. Only in the USA are you essentially guaranteed that your final resting place is seriously final. All over the world, there are varying laws and customs regarding the amount of time the dearly departed can occupy the space to which their mortal remains are originally interred. Real estate values vary widely, and in most countries, it’s time to move along after a certain number of years. France is just that kind of country, so when time’s up, it’s up. The Parisians began emptying cemeteries all over the city to make room for more dead and the tunnels just seemed like the logical place to really make it final. The exodus of human remains from cemetery to the catacombs continued from 1786 to the late 1850s or early 1860s. You may wonder why the move started in 1786. Turns out that Louis XVI was also concerned about diseases being spread from corpses and essentially closed all the cemeteries in Paris that year, so that was the year the exodus from the cemeteries to the catacombs began. The sections are also identified by which cemetery the bones were exhumed from and what year that took place.
There are so many interesting things to see in the dark shadows far below the sunny, vibrant streets of Paris. One of the most fascinating sections is an area carved by a mason who had served a sentence in prison on the island of Mallorca during one of Louis XV’s wars. From his prison cell, he spent his days gazing upon the harbor at Port Mahon. When he returned to Paris, he began spending his lunch breaks carving the scene of the harbor that he had memorized from his prison cell. The carvings are truly amazing! When he finished his work, he began carving a set of stairs so that people could come down and admire his work. Sadly, this proved to be a bad idea because the steps crumbled and he was killed in the rubble. Since this kind of “extracurricular” activity in the tunnels was actually illegal, the city of Paris initially denied the application for survivor’s benefits normally rendered to a miner’s widow. The outcry was loud and overwhelming due to the incredible beauty of this man’s work. The city relented and gave his widow her due.
And then there are the bones. Femurs and skulls seem to take center stage as you walk the tunnels of the catacombs, but what you see is only a fraction of what lies out of sight. The bones, according to our guide, go back out of sight “for meters.” Six million corpses have a lot of bones. It seems that those arranging the bones grew weary of just stacking them and began “doodling” with them. You will see heart shapes, crosses, arches, and more shaped from skulls. Please don’t get me wrong here. The folks arranging the bones were not being dishonorable. Quite the opposite: this place is consecrated ground and you will get quickly tossed out for being disrespectful of the dead whose remains are placed here.
There are those who just can’t help trying to explore the catacombs on their own, even though it is illegal to do so. Just within the last two weeks, a pair of teens from the US were exploring without the authority to do so. When they failed to return when they were expected, their friend called the police. A full-fledged search ensued involving much manpower and canine assistance. Finally, after three days, they were rescued. The pair was found suffering from dehydration and mild hypothermia. They are probably now suffering from some serious legal problems.
We climbed the eighty three steps back into the light of day on a beautiful summer afternoon in Paris. Our guide left us with one last story from catacomb lore. Apparently, around the end of WWII, a huge pile of bones was discovered and it was obvious that they were not human remains. Much investigation ensued and it was finally determined that the bones were feline. There was only one explanation: just above the cache of cat skeletons was a butcher’s shop.
It’s gruesome down there, but fascinating at the same time. You just have to see it to believe it.