A brief history of the Catacombs of Paris


 

Have you ever heard of the Catacombs of Paris before? Chances are you have if you’ve stumbled upon this article! The Catacombs have a pretty creepy reputation, as they are, after all, a massive burial ground for Parisians that have died in the city over the years.

The Catacombs are located beneath the city of Paris, and are a massive maze of old bones, secret chambers and ancient tunnels. Paris is a beautiful place, but the city also has a bit of a macabre side to it. There aren’t many places in the world that have turned an underground cemetery into a tourist attraction!

Today I’m going to be telling you all a bit more about the history of the Paris Catacombs. So, if you like history, Paris and cemeteries…you’ve come to the right place!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING THE CATACOMBS
ENTRY FEE: 13 EUROS
OPENING HOURS: EVERYDAY EXCEPT MONDAYS 10AM-8:30PM
ADDRESS: 1 AVENUE DU COLONEL HENRI ROL-TANGUY, 75014 PARIS
METRO STATION: DENFERT-ROCHEREAU / MOUTON-DUVERNET
WEBSITE

Why were the Catacombs constructed?

The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery

Engraving depicting the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris, around the year 1550 by
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer – WikiCommons

Paris hasn’t always been the chic cosmopolitan city that it is today. In general, major European cities of yesteryear were known for being dirty and crowded. But, if you wanted to find a job in France in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, you had to make your way to the capital. Interestingly enough, this notion is still fairly true today.

By the time the 18th century rolled around, even the cemeteries in Paris were beginning to get overcrowded. Doctors began to realize that they were even responsible for many different diseases that were popping up around the city.

The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery posed the most problems, as it was located in the center of the city and was Paris’ largest cemetery at the time. It was also the oldest cemetery in Paris, and had often been used as a mass grave. That meant that there were a ton of decomposing bodies in there. I don’t want to get that graphic with you all, but can you imagine the stench that must have emanated from the site?! Yuck.

As a way to relieve the city of the oder and the disease that was coming out of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, the city of Paris came to the conclusion that the cemetery needed to be shut down. Now the question became, “where do we put all of these bodies?” The answer came in a system of old quarries, located in a town outside of Paris called Montrouge. The quarries extended into a bunch of tunnels that were located beneath Paris.

And so in 1785 a massive project to transport the bodies from the cemetery into the quarries began. In order to prevent upsetting city dwellers, most of the project was carried out at night. There was a small break in the transfers during the French Revolution, but the project went on until 1814.

The Catacombs are opened to the public

Catacombs

The Catacombs of Paris (Catacombes de Paris) by Jorge Láscar – Flickr

There’s just something about Parisian architecture that is so iconic with the city. Wait, it isn’t just something, it’s true! Paris boasts a very particular architectural style, which is called Haussmannian.

In 1840, Napoleon III decided to embark on a project that would change the face of Paris forever. He enlisted the help of the prefect of Seine, Baron Haussmann (which explains the name of the style of architecture), and together they renovated the city. That meant that large boulevards were installed, new buildings were built and new cemeteries were installed.

Although the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery had been closed for years at this point, there were still some bodies that needed to be removed and placed in the quarries. In 1860, the new city was named the “Paris Municipal Ossuary,” and was dubbed the “Catacombs,” thanks to the recent discovery of the Roman Catacombs in Italy.

Well before Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann’s remodel, in 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment only. But, before the site could be opened, a lot of work needed to be done in order to make it safe to enter. As you can imagine, when the old bones were first transferred to the quarries, they were dumped there in a fairly haphazard way.

We can thank an inspector named Héricart de Thury for the improvements. In 1810 Thury redesigned the Catacombs, turning the site from an underground graveyard to a monument that Parisians and tourists alike could visit. Today, the Catacombs are completely open to the public and do not require a special appointment.

What did Parisians think of the Catacombs?

Nadar

Famous Parisian photographer Nadar’s self-portrait in the Catacombs, 1861 by Nadar – WikiCommons

The Catacombs became a popular destination for Parisians and tourists as soon as it was opened to the public. In the beginning, only the most privileged Parisians could enter the site. In 1787, the Count of Artois (who would go on to become King Charles X of France) paid a visit to the Catacombs!

After renovations had been completed, the public could visit within opening hours starting from 1815 onwards. The Catacombs were an instant hit! In fact, in 1830 the visits by appointment only rule was reinstated, due to the damage that all of the visitors in the last 15 years caused.

The Catacombs closed for 17 years from 1833-1850, because the Church was opposed to displaying human remains. The Parisians were not very happy with this initiative, and in 1850 the site reopened, but only 4 times a year.

Due to growing public demand, in 1867 the government decided to open the Catacombs once a month for visitors. In 1874, the numbed was bumped up to bi-weekly visits, and then the site was opened once a week during the 1878, 1889 and 1900 World’s Fairs that took place in Paris. Not long after the 1900 World’s Fair, the Parisian monument was reopened to daily visits. People really couldn’t get enough of the Catacombs!

Are the Catacombs worth visiting today?

Map

Map of the visitable Catacombs, drawn by the IGC (Inspection Générale des Carrières) in 1858 – WikiCommons

The short answer here is yes, the Catacombs are worth visiting today! I really hesitated to go down there myself for the first time, as I am not the biggest fan of small spaces, the dark and walking amongst bones. But I’m here to tell you that if I (the biggest wimp ever) enjoyed visiting the Catacombs, anyone will!

Even though the Catacombs have turned into a major tourists destination, it’s important to remember that it is indeed a graveyard. That’s another reason to go: to pay homage to all of the people who have found their resting place there.

You should definitely consider visiting the Catacombs with one of our expert local guides. We offer a specialty Catacombs of Paris skip-the-line walking tour, where you can explore the Paris Catacombs and the bones of the 6 million Parisians resting underground. Thanks to your guide, you’ll be able to skip the long lines. You’ll also have access to all of the places that are open to the public in the Catacombs.

In addition to other things, you’ll find out why in a city known for its cemeteries, these skulls and bones are piled up underground by the millions, and you’ll learn how Paris has handled the dead over 2,000 years!

Conclusion

I hope you all have enjoyed learning more about the history of the Catacombs of Paris! Like so many things in this city, there is a story behind it that deserves to be told.

If you’re interested in joining another one of our walking tours, click here to see all of the options and to make your reservation!

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