Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Empire of Death

The air around me smelled dank and musty. In the dimly lit tunnel hewn in the limestone, hubby walked with a slight stoop to avoid hitting his head while the kids scampered ahead only to be called back whenever they escaped our view around a turn. Puddles and slick stone floors kept me on my toes as I drew my jacket around me as protection from the chill. Twenty meters (60 feet) above us, the morning sun shone brightly on the bustling streets of Paris' Montparnasse district. But we were far below ground, making our way through the Catacombs that are the final resting place of the bones of 6 million people, more than twice as many as the number living and breathing in Paris today.

A massive web of old limestone quarries spreads out beneath the south side of central Paris. The Romans were the first to excavate the stone to build the ancient city of Lutetia. Mining continued over the centuries, providing the material for Notre Dame, the Louvre, and other Paris buildings. After a while, some tunnels were abandoned and lay empty. Sections began to collapse starting in 1774 and as recently as 1961, engulfing houses, neighborhoods and people.

By the late 18th century, Paris faced a public health problem caused by the high number of burials within the city limits. These stretched as far back as the Merovingian era, over 1,200 years ago. Those who could not afford a proper church burial were put in mass burial sites, their identities forever lost. As the bodies decayed, the putrefied remains seeped into the groundwater which was the source for the city's wells and drinking water. Someone eventually wised up and decreed that all the cemeteries within the city were to be closed and the contents transferred elsewhere.

In an Aha moment, the Police Lieutenant General, Alexandre Lenoir, recommended that the bodies be moved to the abandoned quarries beneath the city.  The tunnels were blessed, and for two years starting in 1786, the skeletal remains were loaded onto horse-drawn wagons at night, covered in black cloth, and escorted to their new resting place by priests singing the burial service. Cemetery items such as urns, crosses, and other memorabilia were also moved into the tunnels.

In 1810, the Inspector General of Quarries decided to make the ossuary into a proper mausoleum and directed the decorative arrangement of bones that began drawing visitors from the very beginning. Napoleon III thought this would be a great father-son outing in 1860.

Carving of the Quartier de Cazerne

As for us, we arrived right at opening time on a summer Sunday morning to wait in line for an hour while they slowly let people into the tunnels. Only 200 people are allowed inside at a time. A tight spiral staircase led us 130 steps beneath the surface, and we strolled through empty tunnels at first that seemed a bit of a let down. At least the slow rate at which they let visitors enter kept the passageways from becoming crowded. We eventually came across centuries-old carvings made by the original miners. The Quartier de Cazerne was created as a tribute to diggers from this district who died while working in the quarries.

Stop! This is the Empire of Death!

Finally, we reached the burial sites. Passing through a doorway topped with a sign warning us to Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort ("Stop! This is the Empire of Death!"), we continued undeterred to see what lay ahead. The tunnels snaked around, back and forth, leading us through the world of the long dead. I expected it to feel rather macabre, but it wasn't as spooky as I expected. Perhaps it is because I knew that most of these people had died natural deaths way back when short life expectancy was the norm. I think the atmosphere would be quiet different if these were victims of genocide or other brutalities. Knowing that it took centuries for this number of bodies to accumulate gave me solace.

Decorative skeletal facades

Barrel shaped arrangement in the Crypt of the Passion

These weren't just random piles of bones. Skulls and long bones were artistically arranged in facades lining both sides of the tunnels. The remaining bones were piled in a heap 10 feet deep behind them.  No attempt was made to keep a body's skeleton together, probably because they'd been laid to rest collectively in mass burial pits in the first place.

A tidy wall of bones hides the piles behind it.

 Markers identified from which cemetery the remains originated.

Bones of the old St. Laurent cemetery deposited in 1848 in the west ossuary and transferred in 1859.

The mood in the cavern was solemn as befits any burial ground. Carved messages gave me pause and made me think of how fleeting life can be but how death is just a part of the cycle. At least, I think that's what I was supposed to be thinking about. I don't know a lick of French, so I could possibly be totally inventing the meanings. Another sign read "Happy is he who is forever faced with the hour of death and prepares himself for the end every day." That makes me think of the "Now I lay me down to sleep..." prayer with its "... and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take" provision.

This reminds me that a) everything in life is fleeting; and b) I should learn French.

After walking about 2 kilometers (the ossuary encompasses 780 meters of it) over the course of an hour, we emerged from the tunnels by climbing up 83 steps. Blinking in the bright sun, we rejoined the busy world of the living.

  • Tickets are 8 Euro; Children under 13 years are free. Not included in the Paris Museum Pass.
  • Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Mondays and public holidays. Last admission at 4 p.m.
  • Be prepared to wait in line. Arrive no later than 2:30 p.m. or risk not getting in.
  • Flash photography is not allowed.
  • No toilet or cloakroom facilities are located in the Catacombs.
  • Bring a light jacket as the temperature is 14°C (57°F).
  • The Catacombs are not accessible to people with reduced mobility.
  • If you or your kids are easily spooked, skip this attraction.
  • Entrance is directly across the street from the Denfert-Rochereau Métro stop near the traffic circle with the lion statue in the middle
  • Exit is at 36 Rue Rémy Demoncel. The closest Métro stops are Alésia and Mouton Duvernet. 
  • See the Catacombs website for more information.

Related Posts:
Love Locks Bridge
Parc de la Villette: A Kids' Paradise in Paris
La Géode as big as the Ritz

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper and on Pret-a-Vivre. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Goodness, i was in paris a couple of weeks ago and we wanted to see the catacombs so bad and it was closed! so thanks for sharing!

    -Brittany Ruth

  2. Did you feel claustrophobic down there? I've often heard about this tour - sounds interesting but I don't want to go if it's too tight. We're headed to Paris next spring, so maybe I can talk my husband or my parents into taking this tour with me.

    1. It wasn't claustrophobic. At the beginning, the ceiling was about 6 feet high at the tunnels were maybe 4 feet wide. After a while, the tunnels got wider and higher, sometimes, we were even in what would be considered a room.

  3. I also have heard about the Catacombs tour and would be interested in doing it when (if) I'm next in Paris. I hadn't appreciated that 6 million people lay in the catacombs - a mind boggling amount of humanity.
    A great post - and very informative too.

  4. I didn't make it to the catacombes in Paris when we were there in 2005. I think your vertual tour is enough for me - thank you! Did you see the old Roman arena?
    Have a great week and thank you for stopping by my blog today. Next time you are in Singapore you should go to the Raffles just to have a look at least!

  5. I loved reading this post. What an incredible experience. And certainly unforgettable, of at least that's the way I imagine it to be. I would think that it was just a tad bit creepy entering the catacombs at night though.

    1. I felt like it was night while I was down there. It was surprising to come back up and realize it was just about lunchtime.

  6. Hi Michelle,
    What an interesting catacomb. I liked how they arranged the remains so artistically. I think its better than dumping them in disarray. I can see how this place would make a good outing for Napoleon. He and Keith would get along. Keith loves this kind of place and I'm sure that when he reads this post he'll say that we have to go here next time we're in Paris.
    Love the first photo - beautiful and spooky at the same time.

  7. I've always wanted to visit will have to wait, but your story and images are fantastic to see in its place

  8. The catacombs are very interesting, aren't they? I'm always amazed at how much care was given to the remains as they were moved.

  9. This was one of your best posts ever! I was 'there' with you every step of the way. Great information and photos were perfect to illustrate. Loved this one!

  10. Spooky photos, but it looks super interesting. I've never been to Paris, but this looks like it is more up my alley than what I normally see of the city.

  11. I have seen a place like this in Rome many years ago. A gruesome discovery.

  12. I've always found this catacomb interesting and have always wanted to visit. My kids were much younger when we went to Paris so this would have given them nightmares for days. We went to an ossuary/Bone Church in Prague a few weeks ago and that fared well so we're definitely going to this one next time. Thanks for the virtual tour. It is comforting to know they died of natural causes. Also great to know it didn't feel claustrophobic. Great post, Michele!

  13. I've heard about the catacombs and thought they would be fascinating to visit, but I never knew this much background about them. Very interesting post.

  14. You are very brave :). That's one place I'd skip on my visits to Paris. :)

  15. We've never quite made the trip down into the catacombs when we've been in France. I love cemeteries, but this one seemed sadder than most. I enjoyed your perspective and photos in this post.

  16. I really didn't know much about the catacombs before reading your post. I've been to the Bones church in Prague, and would definitely do this if I am ever in Paris.

  17. Goodness. Fascinating but I don't think I could visit. I'd be dreaming of skulls for weeks.


I read each and every comment. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Comment moderation is on, so your comment may not appear immediately.

Web Analytics