When I visited the Catacombs beneath Paris in the summer of 2016, I wondered why they chose to store human remains in such a perplexing manner. After a little bit of research, I discovered quite a bit about the ossuaries snaking beneath Paris.
Humans have lived on Parisian soil since 8000 BC. Throughout the centuries countless bodies were buried. Over time these corpses resurfaced due to erosion from the elements, excavation for new infrastructure, and a variety of other reasons. At first, the bones were sent to the church for safe keeping, but soon the pile grew to a size that crushed church walls beneath its weight. By 1786, Paris residents started organizing the bones to create the ossuaries now occupying the mining tunnels beneath Paris.
The rest of this article dives into information about the Catacombs as well as my personal account of the adventure.
Why I visited the Catacombs beneath Paris?
As some of you know, I spent the majority of 2016 backpacking. Most people when they end up in Paris immediately flock towards iconic attractions such as the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. For me, the highest priority on my tourist ‘hit-list’ were the ossuaries beneath Paris. Ever since I was a child and first read Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” I have found myself intrigued by catacombs and bone churches. I do not remember the first time I read about them, but I knew I wanted to see them. At the time, the person I was traveling with did not find the idea of seeing tunnels filled with bones an exciting endeavor, and I would have ended up missing it if it were not for a serendipitous run in with a Canadian at my hostel the night before whom shared the exact same plans for the same day. This giant of a man convinced my travel buddy that it was worth the visit, and the next day all three of us set out to see the bones stored beneath Paris.
How extensive are the Catacombs?
Although only certain sections of the catacombs are open to the public, the halls sprawling beneath the city are quite extensive. There are over 1.1 miles (1.7 km) of ossuary stretching beneath the streets of Paris. Within these, the remains of over six million bodies are stored, stacked up in neat walls. Outside of this, there are over 170 miles (280 km) of winding passages that were former limestone mines. It is illegal to traverse most of these tunnels. Despite the hefty fines, groups of explorers identified as Cataphiles take to the abandoned mines via secret passageways and marked manholes.
Paris’s Original Cemeteries Contributed to the Overflow
On the land where modern Paris resides, hunter-gatherer groups and ancient communities lived and died without organized cemeteries. A hole was dug up, a body was placed in, and dirt was layered over. During certain periods of time, it was not uncommon for layers of corpses to be created, essentially stacked one on top of another. Later on, the Roman Empire established a city on the Left Bank of the river Seine, also known as “La Rive Gauche,” with their burial grounds stretching South. After the Roman Empire’s occupation in 4th Century B.C., settlements were established on the Right Bank, also known as “La Rive Droite.” Most of the Right Bank was originally marshland and settlements were located on higher ground which was why the cemeteries were created in the middle of the city instead of outside of it, as is custom. The most popular cemetery was located in Notre-Dame-des-Bois church which later became Saints Innocents. Over years and years of burying people in the finite space within city limits, overpopulation became a problem. With no room to expand due to the central location, the church decided to store the older bones in the walls. That is until the weight of those bones became so great, they crushed the walls. Now the excess remains are stored in the mines beneath the city.
The Tale of Philibert Aspairt–Guardian of the Catacombs
There are many dangers the Catacombs present from getting lost to enduring a cave-in. Despite these dangers, no one has died since 1793. A gatekeeper known as Philibert Aspairt supposedly armed himself with a single candle and went in hunt of a secret stash of liquor. They found him eleven years later holding one of the bottles. Since then he has become the guardian of the Catacombs recognized by the cataphiles exploring the mines today.
What to Expect When You Visit the Catacombs
If you intend on visiting the Catacombs, prepare to stand in line for multiple hours. I know this seems daunting, but I promise you will end up doing it for most of the popular attractions. It is worth the wait. Prepare for the weather. Chances are, depending on what time of year you visit, you will either encounter rain or scorching heat. I would recommend bringing an umbrella or coat for rain and water for the heat. When I visited it was in August and there were heat waves passing through. Plenty of people strolled up and down the lines selling water, but it cost four euros a bottle. I would recommend standing in line with a friend if you can. If you are traveling solo, try to meet someone at your hostel or something because it is helpful to have someone to hold your place in line in case you need to go to the bathroom or one of you runs to grab food while you wait. When you get into the Catacombs, it is about a 45-minute trek through. It is chilly, even during the summer heat, so I would recommend bringing a light sweater for when you get in there. There are steep, narrow steps–lots of them. If you do not think you can make it up and down, I would recommend a different attraction.
Other Ossuaries to Visit in Europe
In addition to the Catacombs of Paris, there are other bone churches and catacombs sprinkled all over Europe. The same gentleman I met the day before my trip into the Catacombs shared with me his recent experience in the Czech Republic where he visited the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. I ended up making it there within the following month. It was much smaller but absolutely worth it. Unfortunately, when I visited their bone chandelier was taken down for dusting. They still had quite an array of macabre art formed out of bones on display though. Other places to check out are Saint Peter’s Basilica (Rome, Italy), Capuchin Crypt (Rome, Italy), Medieval Ossuary (Wamba, Spain), Hallstatt Karner (Halstatt, Austria), San Bernardino alle Ossa (Milan, Italy), Capella dos Ossos (Evora, Portugal), Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo (Palermo, Italy), and St. Michan’s Church (Dublin, Ireland). I am not sure about all of these, but I know you need to make a reservation for Saint Peter’s Basilica as they only allow so many people to pass through each day.
What is Edgar Allen Poe’s Short Story “A Cask of Amontillado” About?
I mentioned earlier that it was the short story “A Cask of Amontillado” which first sparked my interest in Catacombs and the like. It is a story of revenge and, like most of Poe’s works, horror. The narrator tells his account of taking revenge upon his friend Fortunato whom he lures down into family tombs under the pretenses of checking out a cask of Amontillado wine. You can find the story for free on iBooks or there is an online PDF here. I would recommend the read. I’ve read it about a dozen time, and it does not get old.
What are some creepy places you have visited throughout your travels? Please, tell me your stories!