City of Bones: The Paris Catacombs

Quote from Horace in Latin and French – pretend that each day that has dawned is your last

“The shoulder bone’s connected to the back bone, and the back bone’s connected to the neck bone, and the neck bone’s connected to the head bone.”

Skeletons and skulls aren’t what normally spring to mind in Paris, the city of Moulin Rouge and kisses atop the Eiffel Tower, but literally underneath the those romantic streets is a spooky secret world.

The Catacombs of Paris are once again open to tourists who feel like seeing a heart stopping and rarely seen side of Paris.

After vandalism in September, much needed restoration work was undertaken and it will now re-open at the start of January according to the Paris tourist board.

Since Roman times Parisians buried their dead on the outskirts of the city, but as the city expanded the grave yards became too full and bodies contaminated the groundwater.

Police Lieutenant General Alexandre Lenoir hit upon the idea of using the underground tunnels and quarries that honeycombed Paris to store the dead.

By 9 November 1785 the council of state agreed to remove the dead from the Cemetery of the Innocent. The procedure began on 7 April the following year.

The bones were transported on black shrouded carts, through Paris streets lit only by flickering lanterns, accompanied by priests solemnly singing the funeral rites.

Almost six million Parisians were transferred and interred in this way, along with grave stones and memorials from the cemeteries.

If neat rows of bones all sounds a little macabre, well it is but in a good way. The dead here are treated respectfully and the ossuary was a practical solution to a sensitive problem.

People often worry about the smell, but beyond the odour of damp you get in any cellar it’s fine. The Catacombs are lit, but anyone remotely claustrophobic or unnerved by the sight of bones it’s not the best idea.

There are only 2km of the tunnels open to the public and the well lit walk takes around 45 minutes, it’s cold down there so take coat. And don’t stray from the path, who knows what stalks those tunnels!


€8 for adults, €6 concessions, free for under 14s. Guided tours must be booked four weeks in advance.
Access is at 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau, 75014 Paris. Nearest metro is Denfert-Rochereau.

Tomas Mowlam

Image Credit: albany tim

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