Traveling back to the 18th Century
An “ossuary” is a box, a building, even a well or any other kind of site that is made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. Ossuaries are used where burial space is rare, or as here in Paris, where human remains were brought to the catacombs from overcrowded cemeteries, in order to make room for the city’s increasing development. The Paris Catacombs date back to the late 1700’s, when the ossuary was formed from an old underground stone quarry. For over 15 years, every night again, long processions of priests, workers and black draped horses and carriages brought over 6 million re-excavated people to these tombs. Up until 1860 the kilometers long corridors were used to pile up skulls and bones. For those interested, it is a fascinating opportunity to step back in time and look at a former burial practice.
After entering the pavilion, that houses the entrance, a spiral stairs brings you immediately down to 20 meters (135 feet) below street level, approximately five floors lower that is. There is a whole network of corridors that runs through the entire city and is situated at different depths. We will only be able to view a small piece in this 45-minute guided tour. The first meters lead us through “ordinary” corridors, built of stone, a proof that it is indeed an old quarry we are entering. From time to time we can see landmarks placed in the walls, referring to the streets and districts above.
We wander through the dark corridors for a little while, small ceiling lamps from time to time that show us the way. We are alone, and see a black line on the ceiling, the line that had to be followed many years ago in order not to get lost in here, something that happened often. Only recently two girls were found in here after being lost for two days…
A unique site
Before entering the actual Catacombs, you’ll notice some history from before. As already mentioned, the Catacombs are made from older quarries.They represent the interface between the history of Paris and the Earth’s geological evolution. Forty-five million years ago, Paris and the surrounding area were covered by a tropical sea. Dozens of metres of sediment accumulated on the sea bed, forming over lime the limestone deposits visible in the Catacombs today.
From the thirteenth century onwards, the open quarries on the slopes along the river Bièvre were replaced by underground workings to supply the huge quantities of stone required to build Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre and city ramparts. The supporting pillars, bellshaped roof cavities, quarrymen’s footbath and Port-Mahon sculpture gallery, all of which can be seen on the tour, bear witness to the fact that mining activity was carried out at the site over the centuries.
The Paris Catacombs
Finally we enter the Catacombs, something I have personally been looking forward for several years. But somehow every time I visited Paris, I forgot for some reason. The first view is amazing… Hundreds, no, thousands of bones and skulls are piled up one another. So many remains, that it almost seems like a building material. It is anything but frightening. A special feeling comes to me: the feeling of going back in time. The remains that lie here, those faces that look at you, belong to citizens who lived in the Paris of three hundred years ago. These people have experienced the French Revolution, ended up under the guillotine, some have even been shot looking at the holes in the skull, and they would tell many stories if they only could.
The more you walk, the more remains seem to show up behind every corner. It’s remarkable how many bones lie here: behind the first rows, those who form the walls of the corridors, are several more meters of stacked bones and skeletons. Around 2 kilometers (1.5 miles) are to visit, the rest of the 11.000 square meters of the tombs aren’t. But even this “small” part is really impressive.
4 April 1777 : Louis XVI establishes the “Quarries Inspectorate”, responsible for protecting Parisian quarries.
7 April 1786 : Blessing and consecration of the ossuary, now known as “the Catacombs”. It took two years to transfer all the bones from the “cimetière des Innocents” graveyard, the largest one.
1787-1814 : Transfer of bones from other Parisian graveyards.
1810-1814 : Héncart de Thury, inspector of Quarries, tries to make the site accessible to the public.
1859 : The final transfer of bones takes place during the urban regeneration work carried out by Haussmann.
1983 : The “City of Paris Cultural Affairs Division” takes over the management from the Quarries Inspectorate.
2002 : Catacombs become part of the Carnavalet – History of Paris Museum.
2008 : The Catacombs reopen after three months of work, in the Port-Mahon gallery, which had been closed since 1995.
Notable historical people
During the French Revolution people were buried directly in the Catacombs, including the members of the Swiss Guard killed in the storming of the Tuileries palace on 10 August 1792, as well as the victims of the massacres in September 1792. The remains of victims of the guillotine transferred there from their original burial pits include Lavoisier, Madame Elisabeth, Camille and Lucile Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre.
The bones from several graveyards and churches in Paris include the remains of many famous names from previous centuries including the writers François Rabelais (1483-1553), Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1698) and Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), the sculptor François Girardon (1628 – 1715), the painter Simon Vouet (I590 – 1649), the architects Salomon de Brosse (1571-1626), Claude Perrault (1613 – 1688) and also Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646 – 1708).
- Buy a ticket in advance to avoid waiting. Visitors are limited.
- The experience is the same by day and in the evening, as you’re underground and the lighting is artificial.
- You may want to bring an extra layer in summer, as the temperature drops to raound 14° C (54°F) in the Catacombs.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes: it’so down 130 steps and up 83 steps to return to street level.
- There is no cloakroom, so bring only what you want to carry with you. No suitcases larger than a backpack or a handbag.
- The Catacombs tour is maybe not for everyone… you will be quite deep underground and see human leftovers, so it’s not actually recommended for young children or sensitive people.
- Unfortunately the site is not accessible for those with limited mobility and not recommended for those with heart or respiratory problems.
- For fewer crowds, book a morning visit.
How to Get There
The Catacombs are open every day except Mondays and some bank holidays, and are located in the 14th arrondissement.
The Denfert-Rochereau metro and RER station puts you right by the entrance on Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.
Catacombes de Paris
1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau)
Tél. : +33 1 43 22 47 63
Information and booking : +33 22.214.171.124.31
Other Things to Do in the 14th Arrondissement
This part of Paris is not the city’s most popular, since it’s a bit far away from the Seine, near the southern edge of the city limits. However, when you are actually there to visit the Catacombs, take advantage to check out some other attractions such as the 56th-floor observation deck of Tour Montparnasse, or Montparnasse Cemetery, where writers and intellectuals such as Charles Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir are buried.
Need more information about the Catacombs, and how to visit them? Check catacombes.paris.fr.