Touring the Catacombs of Paris (& the Strange History of The Innocents’ Cemetery)

Catacombs-of-Paris-rights-free-image-skulls-bones

Few places in the French capital draw the sort of morbid curiosity that the Catacombs of Paris do– and for good reason. The part that’s open to the public consists in around 1.5km/1 mile of underground tunnels, carved from limestone and lined with the remains of some six million corpses. And this only represents a small section of the vast network.

An anonymous memorial to millions of unnamed, deceased Parisians, the catacombs are filled with human femurs, skulls, and other bones, piled in oddly ornate, neat displays, and narrated by poems and aphorisms about death. Leave it to the French to make it artful and philosophical, right?

But however attractively and tidily the nameless bones and skulls may be stacked, they hit a taboo nerve.

Image of the Catacombs of Paris, with a sign describing how the bones were exhumed from the Cimetière des Innocents in 1809. Mustang Joe/CC0 1.0 license
Ossuaries at the Catacombs of Paris, with a sign describing how the bones shown here were exhumed from the Cimetière des Innocents in 1809. Many others were exhumed much earlier. Mustang Joe/CC0 1.0 license

The ossuaries speak both to our dread of mortality, and to our fascination with how societies logistically manage death. In the West, where death is rarely confronted directly in daily life, it seems apt that it would be driven deep underground. A bit like Hades, or the subconscious realm of nightmares.

Created starting in the late 18th century, the Catacombs of Paris may seem like an old-fashioned oddity. But they are in fact the result of modern, more hygienic and efficient ways of managing human remains. And their almost poetic curation into a ‘museum’ of sorts is connected to the development of the tourism industry in the 19th century– another distinctly modern phenomenon.

Keep reading to learn more about the history of this curious and intriguing site, what to look out for when touring the catacombs, and for my tips on making the most of your visit.

A Horrific History: Exhuming the Cimetière des Innocents, an Overflowing Graveyard

 Musée Carnavalet/Théodore Hoffbauer

The story of the Paris Catacombs begins in the late eighteenth century, when officials began to recognize that traditional city cemeteries had become putrid, overflowing, un-hygienic messes.

For hundreds of years, the centrally located Cimetière des Innocents had been the postmortem home of generations of Parisians. With origins in the early medieval period, it served as a burial ground for the 5th-century Notre-Dame-des-Bois church. It soon became the city’s main cemetery.

{Related: Take a Self-Guided or Virtual Tour of Medieval Paris}

Located in close reach of the bustling Les Halles market (now a monstrous shopping center), the cemetery was overcrowded and shambolic, with many layers of graves and human remains piled atop one another.

By 1780, conditions had worsened further. To create space, graves of Parisians who had been dead for decades or centuries were exhumed, their skeletal remains tightly packed together into charniers (mass graves) built in the walls of the cemetery.

Charnier (mass grave) built into the walls at the St Innocents Cemetery in Paris (Cimetiere des Innocents), with mural of the Danse Macabre serving as decor.
Charnier (mass grave) built into the walls at the St Innocents Cemetery in Paris (Cimetiere des Innocents). A 15th-century mural depicting the “Danse Macabre” decorates the walls behind the arched structures. Wikimedia Commons

The main burial grounds reportedly rose two metres (more than six feet) above the ground compared to surrounding streets, with layers of graves separated only by loose mounds of earth.

16th-century French writer Rabelais alluded to the horrifying conditions at the cemetery in a section of his famous multi-volume work Pantagruel, describing Paris as

“a good city to live in, but not to die in, since the beggars of Saint-Innocent {cemetery} warmed their asses on the bones of the dead.”

une bonne ville pour vivre, mais non pour mourir ; car les guenaulx (les gueux) de Sainct Innocent se chauffouyent le cul des ossements des morts ». 

And during the mid-18th century, merchants and residents began to complain of fetid, horrifying odors emanating from the Innocents and infecting surrounding buildings. Most famously, in 1780, a restaurant owner named Gravelot was terrified to find that part of a mass grave had collapsed; the cellars of his restaurant on rue de la Lingerie were “invaded” by corpses.

Some historians claim this horror-movie-worthy incident was “the” event that pushed local authorities to close the Innocents cemetery, in 1785– leading to the creation of new burial places, and the Catacombs, of course.

Creating the Catacombs: A new site on the left bank
Historic illustration showing the building of the Catacombs during the 19th century, l’Univers Illustre, 1866.

To solve the problem of relocating the remains of millions of people from the Innocents, city planners and officials had to get creative. They identified a vast network of underground limestone quarries on the left bank– much of them then outside the bounds of Paris– as an ideal place to store the remains of millions of Parisians.

Thus, from 1785 through 1787, the city undertook a first major “evacuation” of remains from charnel houses and mass graves at Les Innocents, completing transfers at night in an attempt to fend off criticism or shock from residents and church officials. Workers heaped bones into quarry wells, then piled them in the galleries of old subterranean quarries. The site, near modern-day Montparnasse, was deemed the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” in 1786.

{Related and nearby: A Walk Through Montparnasse Cemetery}

In later decades and following the French Revolution, other graveyards and cemeteries in the city center were exhumed, with more remains transferred to the Catacombs. The project really picked up after 1840, as Haussmann’s and others’ efforts to modernize the city picked up significant speed.

In 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the general public, but only by appointment. It quickly became a hit with locals and tourists, and even figures such as Napoleon III and his son visited the site.

Part of the appeal was its mythical association with ancient Roman catacombs in nearby Italy. Another part of it a nineteenth-century, Romantic interest in the macabre (and the medieval). And by the mid-19th century, early photographers such as Felix Nadar brought worldwide attention to the Catacombs and their “empire of death”.

Felix Nadar, French photographer, took early images of the Paris Catacombs, such as this one from 1861.
Félix Nadar took early images of the Paris Catacombs, such as this one from 1861.

Today, the Catacombs are connected to and managed by the same team behind the Musée Carnavalet, dedicated to the history of Paris. Of course, I highly recommend a visit to both.

Touring the Paris Catacombs: Visit Highlights

You can take a self-guided tour of the Paris Catacombs, including by audioguide, or opt for a guided tour. Image: Paris Musées

Touring the Paris Catacombs is fascinating, but (at least to me) it’s more of an archeological adventure than a creepy attraction fit for a Halloween outing. The 45-minute circuit takes you down a long spiral staircase to enter the old limestone quarries.

{Lore & Legends: A Few Famous French Ghost Stories & Hauntings}

As you pass through the tunnels– some quite narrow and almost claustrophobic, others wide “galleries”, take note of how the thousands of bones and skulls tightly packed around the sides are have been arranged.

Some form crosses or other recognizable, symmetrical patterns, while others appear to be unceremoniously lumped together in tall stacks and lines, sometimes behind metal grates and under low ceilings.

Catacombs of Paris - "Paris Catacombs" by levork is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Paris Catacombs” by levork is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

There’s something overwhelming and moving, but also oddly impersonal, about the spectacle. Who are all these people, and what sorts of lives did they live? We know, as mentioned above, that many were plague victims. But beyond that, their particularity melts away, forming an uncanny sea of anonymous bones, eye sockets and grinning teeth.

It’s a reminder of our smallness, our impermanence, our fragility. Even the limits of memory, since many or most of these unnamed people once had graves that marked their lives, that differentiated them from others. All of those individuating markers were swept away when these remains were exhumed and transferred to the catacombs. Who knows what skull belongs to which femurs?

The only way to distinguish between one cluster of bones and another? You’ll see signs that state the source of a particular set of remains, and the date of their exhuming, such as this one, reading “Bones from the former St-Jean Cemetery (Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, n. 60)/ Deposed in 1846-1847 in the Western Ossuary and transferred to the Catacombs in September 1859”:

If you’re a Buddhist, you might find the erasure of individual lives liberating or even slightly funny. With the exception of the odd tomb for notable Parisian aristocrats, no egos can thrive here, and the bounds between rich and poor, prominent and ordinary have essentially disappeared.

But if the idea of being remembered means something to you, there’s something quietly terrifying, and very sobering, about it all.

Luckily, you’ll be aided in your existential reflections by carefully placed poems and philosophical musings about mortality throughout the circuit– one of my favorite aspects of the displays.

Poem in the Paris Catacombs-  by ~Ealasaid~ is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Poem in the Paris Catacombs-  by ~Ealasaid~ is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The block above roughly translates as follows:

“What enclosures have opened! What narrow spaces

Occupy, between these walls, the dust of races!

It is in these places of forgetting, and among these tombs

That time and death come to cross their false(hoods),

That the dead are piled and pressed under the earth!

The numbers here are nothing, the crowd is alone”

Whether you find these poems and musings pretentious or thought-provoking, their presence reminds you that you’re in a carefully constructed and curated space: one that has over the decades become one of Paris’ most popular tourist attractions.

My Tips for Visiting

The Catacombs can be easily visited year-round (scroll down for practical information on getting there, tickets, etc.) But I do have a few suggestions for making the most of your exploration:

Best time of year to visit: Try to go in the early morning or during low season (roughly, mid-October to March). The crowds will generally be thinner during these times, making for a more relaxed (and less claustrophobic) experience. Believe me, some of the tunnels are narrow enough. You don’t want to feel crowded as you pass through them.

What to Wear: Even in the summer, go with long sleeves, closed, sturdy shoes, and possibly a light jacket. The Catacombs are kept quite cool (around 14 C/57 F) to preserve the remains from damage. Also, make sure your shoes have decent traction, as some areas in the passageways can be slippery and even wet.

Use an audioguide: Available in English as well as French, Spanish, and German, the audioguides cost only a few Euros extra and will allow you to gain a better understanding of the site’s history and highlights.

What About the “Secret” Parisian Catacombs? Can I Visit Those?

Image: Jacopo/Stalker Blog

As documented in Atlas Obscura, BBC, and numerous other outlets, there are some 200 miles of “off-license” catacombs that have periodically been explored by cataphiles: curious residents, squatters, artists and DJs staging (literally) underground parties.

The non-official tunnels, accessed from several secretive points around the city, include swimming holes and pools, cataphile bars, sculptures, “street art”, and even a makeshift auditorium offering clandestine movie screenings and plastered with film references.

Sounds amazing, right? Unfortunately, it’s illegal for the general public to access these non-official parts of the underground network– and likely pretty dangerous. While I understand the appeal (and especially wish I could see the secret cinema myself) I strongly recommend against trying to visit them.

street art in the Paris catacombs - "Paris Catacombs, Feb-2012" by maltman23 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Paris Catacombs, Feb-2012” by maltman23 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

They may be structurally unsound, are reportedly infested with rats and riddled with electrical lines, and you may well not be able to find an exit unless accompanied by a very experienced local guide. Even if you feel safe and think you can manage them, you can be fined or even arrested if found roaming in tunnels not open to the public.

In short: delight in the many interesting photo essays and podcasts out there on the topic of the secret catacombs, including the ones cited above. But unless you have a taste for breaking the law and putting yourself in danger, don’t try to go explore them yourself.

Catacombs of Paris: Getting There, Buying Tickets & Practical Info

Sign near the entrance of the Catacombs reads “Stop! The Empire of Death is Here. Wikimedia Commons

The catacombs are open year-round from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. The ticket window closes at 7:30 p.m. The attraction is closed on Mondays, and on January 1st, May 1st, and December 25th.

Where is the Entrance to the Paris Catacombs?
The new entrance area to the Paris Catacombs off of Place Denfert-Rochereau.
The recently-renovated entrance to the Paris Catacombs off of Place Denfert-Rochereau.

The entrance is located at 1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, on Place Denfert-Rochereau,
75014 Paris (14th arrondissement).

Metro/RER: Denfert-Rochereau (M Line 4, RER Line B)

Exiting the metro at Denfert-Rochereau, look for building with a light-green glass entrance area and ticketing booth, where you can access a long, winding set of stairs down to the catacomb tunnels (131 steps).

Accessibility & Rules for Visitors
  • Accessibility: Unfortunately, the catacombs are not accessible to wheelchairs, and visitors with other types of physical disabilities or cardiovascular disease may wish to avoid this attraction. This is especially true since you’ll have to climb 112 stairs back up to the street. In addition, visitors with sight disabilities must be accompanied by a guide.
  • The exit is from 21 bis, Avenue René-Coty. It can be a bit disorienting to exit in a different place from where you entered, so make sure you have a streetmap (whether digital or print) on hand to navigate back to the metro or to your next destination.
  • Only 200 people are allowed in at a time, so you may have to wait during busy times.
  • You can only bring a small bag or purse with you during your visit, and the catacombs are not equipped with coat or luggage storage. Leave large bags and other items at the hotel before visiting.
Buying Tickets (in Advance & on the Day)

You can either buy tickets onsite/on the day at the booth near the entrance (see current rates here), or purchase them in advance.

Contact Details & More Info

Visit this page at the official website for more information on conditions and rules for visiting the catacombs, including current health and safety guidelines and up-to-date admission prices. You can write with any inquiries at this address: [email protected].

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Paris Catacombs Guide (Pinterest image/pin from Paris Unlocked)

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