Deep in the bowels beneath Paris lies a city unseen. The bones of citizens long dead form an intricate architecture that is the chilling and fascinating Paris catacombs. A sign marks the entrance: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” (“Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”)
Not the most hospitable of welcomes, but in terms of setting the creepy tone, I couldn’t have put it better myself.
In the late 1700s, Parisian cemeteries were reaching capacity, with some resorting to disinterring the bodies of those long dead (the oldest cemeteries date from Roman times in the 5th century!) and piling them on roofs or creating piles of bones to make room for the more recently deceased. Even these eventually could hold no more and the cemeteries faced disarray and unsanitary conditions. Laws were passed to move cemeteries out of central Paris. The cemeteries were emptied and the bones found a new underground home in the tunnels and mines that were already winding their way under the City of Light.
Carts of bones draped in black cloth were led by priests chanting a service for the dead in a procession held nightly for two years: the time it took to empty most of the city’s cemeteries.
By the turn of that century the catacombs were basically piles of bones that had been thrown down a shaft, and the director of Paris mine inspection decided to put some order and dignity to the human remains. He is the one responsible for many of the walls and designs created from skulls and femurs, as well as the dramatic inscriptions.
It became a macabre point of interest, visited by the upper echelon of French society before restricted access was granted to the public beginning in 1850, even using the excellent acoustics of the space for concerts. In more recent times the catacombs served as Nazi bunkers as well as clandestine routes for the French Resistance. The tunnels underwent a major restoration in 2007 and 2008. Following a bout of vandalism in 2009, the Catacombs were closed, but re-opened shortly after.
In 2015, Les Catacombes are open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am – 8pm. They are not accessible for people with reduced mobility (plan on walking about two kilometres, plus the stairs at the entrance and exit.) Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult, and the site is not recommended for young children.