Cemetery of the Week #19: The Paris Municipal Ossuary

Cross of Skulls

Catacombes de Paris/Paris Municipal Ossuary
1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
75014 Paris, France
Telephone: 01 43 22 47 63
Established: 1780s
Size: About a mile of tunnels is open to viewing
Number of skeletons: Approximately six million
Open: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Monday. Last admission at 4 p.m. Limited to 200 visitors in the site at a time. Lines may last up to two hours in summer. People with heart trouble or difficulty breathing should be aware there are 130 steps down and 83 back up. Young children or people suffering “nervous disease” should not visit. Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. No toilets or cloakroom.
Admission: Adults: 8 Euros, Youth (14 to 26 years old): 4 Euros, Children under 13: Free

The origins of the word catacomb are uncertain. Linguists suggest it comes from the Greek kata kumbas, which means “near the low place.” It’s unclear why this Greek phrase became attached to a district in Rome where, in the second century A.D., Christians buried their dead. Now the word is applied to any underground burial place.

The catacombs of Paris originally had nothing to do with death. They began as a network of quarries beneath the city, providing gypsum to build the metropolis. After they’d been mined, the tunnels stood empty and unused.

Concurrent with the reconstruction of Paris in the 1780s, a movement gained momentum to clean out the old churchyards. Accounts of the period speak of pestilential hellholes, jammed with liquefying cadavers. One report claimed that the notorious Cimetière des Innocents broke through an adjoining wall to spill corpses into an apartment building. Fearing epidemics, the city fathers voted to excavate the Parisian graveyards.

Beginning at dusk, workmen emptied charnel pits around Paris by bonfire light. It was impossible even to consider individualizing the remains. After the bones were loaded respectfully onto carts, priests chanting the funeral service followed them to the underground quarry.

In 1786, after the ossuary was filled, the Archbishop of Paris consecrated the residues of approximately six million people. Among the now-anonymous dead were Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry; Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s girlfriend; alchemist, spy, and reputed immortal Saint-Germain; the philosopher of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu; Mirabeau, who advocated constitutional monarchy and whose corpse was ejected from the Panthéon; Danton, who participated in storming the Bastille to subsequently be guillotined during the Reign of Terror; Robespierre, who engineered the Reign of Terror, then became its prey; and numberless victims of the Revolution.

In 1874, the Municipal Ossuary opened to viewers, including Bismarck and Napoleon III. Ossuary, from the Latin for bones, means a container or vault for the remains of the dead.

“Venez, gens du monde, venez dans ces demeures silencieuses, et votre âme alors tranquille sera frappée de la voix qui s’éleve de leur intérieur: ‘C’est ici le plus grandes des maîtres, la Tombeau.’”

When I visited last, a spiral staircase of stone wound down and down until it reached a path paved with dressed stone and edged with pebbles. From the arching ceiling, bare light bulbs warmed the buttery yellow stone. I couldn’t touch the sides of the tunnel when I stretched out my hands, but I didn’t reach up to measure the short distance overhead. A sign said we were 20 meters below the streets of Paris, deeper than the Métro.

Eventually we reached a doorway. Wooden panels, painted white and black, flanked yawning darkness. Above the lintel, a sign warned, “Arrêtez. C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” Stop. Here is the Kingdom of Death.

The warning frightened away the Nazis, who never discovered the French Resistance hiding in the catacombs after August 1944. Right beneath the Parisian streets, the Resistance had concealed a radio capable of reaching London. They worked in the tunnels until the liberators came.

Beyond the warning, the brown knobs of fibulas and femurs stacked higher than our heads. Skulls formed contrasting lines among the leg bones. Empty eye sockets gazed patiently at us.

Bone upon bone upon bone: the sheer number of these anonymous memento mori is staggering. I had trouble grasping the concept of six million skulls, twelve million shinbones, 72 million ribs…. If a human body has 206 bones, there must be over a billion bones stacked in the catacomb tunnels — assuming, that is, that the gravediggers moved everything. I imagined some bourgeois matron trying to gather herself together after the Trump of Doom sounded. The hipbone’s connected to the backbone…. Which of these backbones are mine?

Beautiful inscriptions graced plaques set amongst the remains. Here and there a yellow spotlight cast a narrow beam, but overall it’s best to bring a flashlight.

The catacombs hold a constant temperature of 57 degrees. One of the guidebooks warned us to take sweaters but I found the tunnels comfortably warm. It might have been cozy, if it hadn’t been so damp. Water dripped incessantly, puddling on the floor.

The catacombs were closed for a while, due to vandalism. Don’t be tempted to touch or move the bones. They are old and fragile — and you will be searched when you exit.

Useful Links:

Official web site

English tour of the Catacombs

My review of Christine Quigley’s Skulls and Skeletons

My review of The Empire of Death

Other ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Bone Chapel of Kutná Hora