Stop! Here is the Empire of Death!
So reads the ominous sign as you enter the Paris Catacombes, two hundred metres below ground.
The catacombs are a relic of Paris’ past, some two hundred miles of underground passageways and limestone quarry tunnels that originally date back to Roman times and occupy huge areas of the Left Bank. They lay abandoned for many centuries, a honeycomb labyrinth of caves and passages.
In the 1700s the catacombs were re-opened for use when it became clear that Paris cemeteries were literally overflowing. The Cemetery of the Innocents, near present day Les Halles in Paris, had been in use for over ten centuries and the cemetery was so overburdened that older corpses were exhumed and placed in nearby charnel houses, where they were sources of disease. A decision was made to close the cemetery forever and create an underground ossuary where the skeletons of Parisians could be respectfully stored.
The catacombs were consecrated in 1786, and every night for the next two years the excavated bones were blessed by priests and taken in black-covered wagons to the catacombs and deposited there. Later, bones from other cemeteries were added. The ossuary now contains the remains of more than six million former Parisians.
The curiosity for the catacombs began in the early 1800s when they were open to the public for the first time. There was a morbid fascination with the galleries stacked neatly with bones, and the poetic inscriptions placed to remind us of the fragility of life and the certainty of death.The catacombs became wildly popular as a macabre attraction, with a black line painted on the ceiling to guide visitors through the labyrinth.
The sculptures of Décure were popular curiosities – the quarryman spent many years carving an exact replica of a prison on the island of Minorca where he was held captive by the English. He died when a staircase he was carving collapsed.
But for many the attraction was simply a fascination with death, the last taboo. The unique beauty of the tombs and tunnels lies in the quiet darkness of the weight of the earth above and the six million souls below. It gives pause to us mortals to consider our inevitable fate.
‘Thus ends everything on Earth
Spirit, beauty, grace, talent
Short-lived like a fleeting flower
Blown down by the slightest breeze.’
Catacombes de Paris
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
Open daily 10am – 5pm
Last entry 4pm
Admission 10 euros, English audio guides 3 euros
Note: The Catacombs are a very popular attraction. Arrive very early (before 9am) or expect a wait of up to four hours to enter.