Formed as a result of the natural process that created quarries and other natural phenomena millions of years ago underground, the city of Paris and its catacombs are known for many reasons. Probably one of the most feared is that it covers about 240 kilometers of quarries beneath its streets, filled with the bones of over six million people buried in them. Praised as one of the most sinister tourist attractions, catacombs are a complicated maze that has a rich, let alone dark, history.
What began as a new promise of wealth and life in the big city, ended with massive overpopulation in the 18th century. This overpopulation naturally led to sickness and death, and the Paris cemeteries were not large enough to take over all bodies. With the city’s cemeteries full to the brim and the smell of rotting corpses killing the local economy, in tandem with commerce, the city closed the Les Innocents cemetery in 1780, thought to be the largest of its time in France.
According to one report:
“By May 1780, the cemetery was literally being sprayed at the seams. A wall of property bordering Les Innocents shattered under the pressure of overflowing graves and spring rains, pouring half-decayed bodies and diseases into the cellar. “
Following the closure of the quarries due to the numerous cases of collapse of the streets of Paris as a result of the massive unregulated digging, they were consecrated on April 7, 1786, as a holy place for last rest instead of crowded cemeteries, which also were closed. Between 1787 and 1814, Parisians worked around the clock to move bones from closed cemeteries to quarries, called ossuaries. They were open to the public even before the transfer was completed in 1809.
Finally, the last bones from the other cemeteries, besides Saint-Eustache and Saint Etienne-de-Grès, were finally laid in the catacombs by 1814, and other last bones were laid around 1860.
Unfortunately, because the work was dangerous and quite appalling, only the poorer Parisians accepted the job. According to one report, they could only move old, decomposed bodies, and any skeleton that had grown and still contained human flesh had to be burned to the bone. In addition, some parts of Les Innocents were “left untouched because some mass graves were too fresh for the bodies to be buried.”
As the initial laying of the bones was indiscriminate, simply piled high, Inspector Eric de Tourie ordered the workers to rearrange them in the order that ultimately turns out to be the order of the day.
Tourists can still visit the catacombs today, but access is restricted to certain areas that cover about a kilometer and a half of the tunnels, since visiting other areas has been declared illegal since 1955. This was basic because many people were lost as a result to which they died in the tunnels, not to mention the very dangerous nature of the underground structures.
One story specifically notes that three young men had to be rescued because they were lost in three days. Another is a little more sinister when several cataphiles, (as illegal catacombs researchers call it) find the camera of an unnamed man who apparently also got lost. He is said to have been a hardened cataphile, possibly lost orientation, panicked and dropped the camera, and then disappeared into the darkness. He was never seen again. The video found was broadcast in a documentary during the first decade of the century.
Over the years, many people have been lost without being seen again. But many people have lost and escaped alive over the years. There are many such videos on YouTube.
Catacombs have been recently upgraded and eventually handed over to the Carnival Museum – History of Paris in 2002. The museum continues to monitor and care for catacombs today. If you want to visit the catacombs, you need to gather more information about the place and what you need to get ready to get into the ossuary. This includes buying a ticket. But if you do visit them, remember that while it is one of the most beautiful places, it is also a holy place and you must behave properly underground.