The Catacombs: A Date With The Dead

When Kim and I were in Paris recently, we finally got to cross something off of our list that we didn’t get to do during our last visit to Paris 4 years ago: visit the catacombs.

To be honest, I didn’t know that much about the catacombs before we visited them. I knew that, way back when, Paris began running out of places to bury people, so they dug up a bunch of old bones to make way for the newly dead. I figured it was a way that the people who ran cemeteries could make a few extra francs without having to buy new land.

Turns out, I was half right!

See, what happened was (I’ll try to keep this short, I promise), Paris had a bunch of old underground stone quarries. Many of these were simply abandoned after the mines stopped producing and, after a few hundred years, they started collapsing – swallowing up houses and entire streets when they did. During this same time, cemeteries began running out of places to bury the newly dead and the city put a moratorium on burying people. During some of these mine collapses, bodies from the surrounding cemeteries poured out and ended up in places they shouldn’t be – like people’s basements. So, the French king decided to kill two birds with one stone: he ordered many of the abandoned mines to be reinforced (to prevent them from collapsing) and ordered the old-dead be dug up and put in the reinforced mines to make way for the newly-dead. Kinda ingenious, no?

shrine in the paris catacombs

A carving one of the miners created while working underground

What I didn’t know was that when they moved the bodies from the cemeteries to the mines, they literally just dumped the bodies down the old mine shafts. Now, this normally wouldn’t be much of a problem (I mean, c’mon, who hasn’t seen Dateline 48 Hours Mysteries – mine shafts are the perfect places to dump dead bodies), except for one thing: the Parisians had 6 million bodies to move. No matter how you slice it, that’s a whole lot of leg bones connected to a whole lot of hip bones.

Ok, I’m wrapping up the history lesson in just a moment, I swear.

For a while, they left the 6-million-bodies-worth-of-bones just laying there in big heaps. Sure, they had the site consecrated by priests and all, but being dumped in a hole with 5,999,999 of your closest strangers isn’t exactly an ideal resting place. Fast forward, oh, I don’t know, let’s say 75 years (because I’ve obviously  forgotten lots of the specifics here): someone re-discovered these giant piles o’ bones and thought to themselves, “I wanna go down into the earth – like 100 feet deep or so – and play with a bunch of dead bodies and arrange their bones in a way I find hauntingly beautiful.”

Thus, the catacombs were born.

a cross in the catacombs in paris

The walls are literally made of bone in the Catacombs

And nowadays, tourists like Kim and I wait for over an hour in the cold November air for our chance to pay good money and go 100 feet down into the earth and be creeped out as 6 million pairs of empty eye sockets stare at you as you make your way through abandoned mine shafts.

Now, I’m not one who is comfortable around dead bodies. Maybe I’ve watched too many bad science fiction movies, but I always feel like they are going to jump up and chase me as I run away flailing and screaming like a little girl. A few years ago, Kim had to practically drag me kicking & screaming into the traveling Body Worlds exhibit. Luckily for me & everyone else around, I remembered not to eat before we went, otherwise I would have spent the entire time puking into trash cans. So, needless to say, I wasn’t too thrilled about visiting the catacombs.

But I am glad I went down and visited the dead because the catacombs really is worth the visit – and spring for the audio tour as well (actually, spring for the audio tour wherever you are – they are nearly always worth it). Yes, it’s creepy to think about how many people’s bodies went into making the ossuary, and yes, at one point you are directed to go to the “monument made out of skulls and shin bones that resembles a barrel,” but there is a strange beauty to it.

(Note: any other time you are instructed to walk towards something constructed out of skulls and shin bones – or any other human bones for that matter – it’s probably a good idea to get out of there as fast as possible.)

skulls in the paris catacombs

It wouldn’t be so bad if their hollow eye sockets didn’t follow you around

And while I’m at it, on behalf of the distant relatives of all 6 million people whose remains are in the catacombs, I would like to extend a thanks to the creepy guy who decided to spend the remainder of his life underground playing with human remains – you really did turn a pile of old bones into something beautiful.

(And if you are wondering, yes, creepy-guy had his bones placed in the catacombs, too.)

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Author: Brian

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