Another activity that I’d never done in all my visits to Paris was to tour the quarry and Catacombs beneath the streets of the 14th arrondissement. I was a little nervous at the prospect of being far underground with the remains of 6 million people, but I have been reading a lot of The Order of the Good Death lately, so I was game.
The Catacombs were created in response to a threat to public health in the late 18th century. The concentration of decay mixed with lye from the Saints-Innocents cemetery (the largest in Paris) was contaminating city well water (ew), so a solution was devised to close the cemetery and move the bones into the abandoned limestone quarries. When the bones were set and artfully arranged, the site was opened as a public attraction, because, why not?
For as long as the line was to get in, it was surprisingly quiet down below. The museum carefully monitors entry, but I still expected to be close to other visitors as we walked through. As it was, there were times that we felt like we were the only ones down there, which was effing creepy. The bulk of the tunnels are simply abandoned quarries though, so it’s not like we were the only ones wandering through endless piles of bones. The ossuary portion was mercifully, more populated by the living.
These charming little scenes were carved by a worker named Décur, and are believed to depict where he was held as a prisoner of the British while serving as a soldier for Louis XV.
There were portions of the quarry that reminded me of Moria (amiright?). I kept wanting to say, “you shall not pass!”
Right before the entrance to the ossuary, there was a delightful exhibit of photographs from a different tomb (in Spain, I think) that was full of mummified corpses hung up along the walls. At first I thought that was a preview of what we were about to see and was a little weary, but when I realized it was a different tomb it made a pile of bones seem downright tame. Well played, Catacombs. It seemed like they wanted to manage our expectations throughout the tour, because at the beginning there are several notices about how the visit is unsuitable for people with heart problems. I imagine it’s a nightmare to get some passed out tourist up the extensive spiral staircases, so I can understand their point.
The entrance to the ossuary reads, “Stop! This is the empire of death!” There are other sayings and musings on life and death peppered throughout the crypt as well.
I’m going to go ahead and state the obvious here: there are a LOT of bones down there. It’s staggering.
I think what was most surprising, and even refreshing, was the tone of the place. Sure, it was a dank underground bone pile, but there was a certain lightness to it. It seemed to say, “we’re all going to end up a pile of bones anyway, right?” The bones are arranged into shapes and patterns throughout (at one point they even create a heart pattern, but the light was bad there), and there are little mini altars and spaces to explore.
It may be heard to tell just how low the ceiling was, so we took this helpful (somewhat blurry) picture with tiny me for scale:
After the ossuary, there are a few more quarry sights before you have to climb a not-insignificant spiral staircase back up to fresh air. You pass through two (now fortified) Cloches de Fontis, or subsidence cavities, that were often the cause of mine collapse. Because they’ve been preserved and reinforced, you can see the many exposed geological layers. I wish the pictures did them justice – they were so high (or deep, I’m not sure what the correct terminology is in this case)!
So the Catacombs got a big two thumb[bone]s up from us. But for the love of God, please avoid it if you have a heart condition.