The Paris Catacombs


Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth.

                                                                                          – Arthur C. Clarke

Just to put that in perspective, if you took 100 billion pennies and laid them out like a carpet, you would cover 14 square miles.  If you stacked them one atop another, they would reach a height of 98,660 miles. Even compared to the 7 billion now living on the planet, 100 billion dead is a staggering amount.  With so many dead, one has to wonder why disposal of human remains has not been a problem.  In actuality, it has been, and the city of Paris is a very good example.  For beneath the city of Paris lies the world’s greatest mass grave, the final resting place for some 7 million dead.  It’s story is not only one of logistics, but also the story of Paris itself, and in many ways that of mankind, as the entire planet can be seen as a mass grave when viewed from the right perspective.

A Brief (but Fascinating) History

To begin with, the history of Paris is rife with conflict, death and disease, no doubt contributing greatly to the numbers occupying the mass grave that now lies beneath the city.  It’s rather ironic considering it is known as the city of love and the city of lights.  Roughly, the timeline of Paris history looks something like the following:

4200 B.C. Earliest archeological signs of permanent occupation
52 B.C. Roman control
500 A.D.Germanic Invasions
800-900 A.D.Viking Invasions
1348 A.D. Black Death arrives, killing as many as 800 per day.  At least
                                    half the population of Paris dies.
1337-1453 A.D.The Hundred Years War
1466 A.D.The Black Death returns, accounting for 40,000 deaths this year alone.
1562-1598 A.D.French Wars of Religion
1590 A.D.Siege of Paris
16th-17th centuries Paris is visited by plagues nearly one year out of every three.
1789-1792French Revolution
1814Russian and Allied occupation after defeat of Napoleon
1832Cholera epidemic
1848February Revolution
1849Cholera epidemic (again)
1870-1871Franco-Prussian War
1914-1918World War I
1939-1945World War II

Since at least as far back as Roman times, the dead were buried outside of Paris, on the outskirts of the city.  But with the rise of Christianity came the practice of burying the dead in consecrated ground.  Consecrated ground usually meant church ground, and churches were built inside the city where the people all lived and gathered. Consequently, by the end of the 10th century, most burials in Paris were taking place inside the city limits, at a small handful of churches.

As they became more and more crowded, individual graves became impractical, and the practice of mass burial increased.  Once an excavation in one area of the churchyard was full, it would be covered over and another opened.  Residues resulting from the decaying of organic matter entered directly into the earth, creating a situation unacceptable for a city whose then-principal source of water was wells.  So bad was the problem that bread and water from the city tasted like decaying corpses, and the mass graves became breeding grounds for disease.

Principal among these churches was the Saints-Innocents, home to one of the city’s most sought-after cemeteries and a large source of revenue for the parish and church.

The Saints-Innocents cemetery

This same church was home to an extensive mural which encircled the parish cemetery, and which is credited as the first instance of the Danse Macabre in art.

Danse Macabre by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

Sadly, only one piece of macabre art still survives from the Saints-Innocents cemetery, but it is more than adequate as a reminder of just how bad the situation was.  The statue known as La Mort Saint-Innocent was in the Saints-Innocents cemetery since 1530. When the cemetery was closed in 1786, this sculpture was in Saint-Gervais church, then in Notre-Dame, where the arm was restored by Deseine. Then, in the Musée des Monuments Français.  The original artist, much like those who ended up in the mass graves of the Saints-Innocents, remains unknown, but it is a very morbid and fascinating piece of work.

La Mort Saint-Innocent

It was not until November 9, 1785, when the government finally intervened, that the Saints Innocents cemetery was closed down for good, and the removal and relocation of the dead was ordered.  By this time, the number of dead buried within the city of Paris had reached some 6 to 7 million, while the living population of the city has never been much more than a third that size.

Alexandre Lenoir
the mastermind behind
the catacombs

Beginning around 1777, the government began cataloging and consolidating all of the abandoned stone quarries, tunnels, mines, and caverns in and around the capital.  Such mining had been going on beneath the city since approximately 1292, and as a result there was a literal maze of tunnels spanning hundreds of kilometers.  The Police Lieutenant General who was overseeing the operation, Alexandre Lenoir, realized that this would be the best place to relocate the remains and, beginning in 1786, the monumental task of exhumation and transfer began.

Charles-Axel Guillaumot

The initial consecration ceremony took place on April 7, 1786.  The actual transfer of the remains occured behind a procession of chanting priests, and consisted of a somber “parade” of black, bone-filled, horse-drawn wagons. In work overseen by the Inspector General of Quarries, Charles-Axel Guillaumot, the bones were deposited in a wide well dug in land bought from a property, “La maison de la Tombe Issoire” (near a house with the same name), and distributed throughout the underground caverns by workers below. Also deposited near the same house were crosses, urns and other necropolis memorabilia recovered from Paris’s church graveyards. This dark parade of remains took two years to complete, and in retrospect seems an eerie reminder of the same dark parades of corpses that took place during the plague years.

Workers distributing bones within the catacombs.

The catacombs in their first years were mainly a bone repository, but Guillaumot’s successor from 1810, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, oversaw the renovations that would transform the underground caverns into a real and visitable sepulture on par with any mausoleum. In addition to directing the arrangement of skulls and femurs into the configuration seen in the catacombs today, he used those tombstones and cemetery decorations he could find (many had disappeared after the 1789 Revolution) to complement the walls of bones.

Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury

Inside The Catacombs

Before showing what is inside the catacombs, it helps to get some idea of the depth and layout.  I was able to find an old wood engraved illustration that gives a great idea of the average depth of the catacombs:

The small section of the catacombs that is open to the public for touring is shown on the following map.  This labels the various sites as well so you can reference the photos I will show below.

The Catacombs rather nondescript entry is in the western pavilion of Paris’s former Barrière d’Enfer city gate.

The present-day official entry to the Paris catacombs.

Through the entry there is a very narrow spiral staircase of stone that winds it’s way down some 62 feet.

The spiral stone stairwell that descends into the catacombs.

After passing through a long (1.5 kilometers, or 1 mile) twisting hallway of mortared stone…

visitors find themselves before a sculpture that existed from a time before this part of the mines became an ossuary, a model of France’s Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector ( labeled ‘O‘ on the map).

In the same chamber is a carving of the Quartier de Cazerne.

Soon after, they would find themselves before a stone portal, the ossuary entry, with the inscription ‘Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort’ (‘Halt! This is the empire of the Dead’).  This is marked as ‘A‘ on the map.

Beyond begin the halls and caverns of carefully arranged bones.

Some of the arrangements are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias.  This first photo is in the area labeled ‘B‘ on the map.

Another is a round room whose central pillar is also a carefully created ‘keg’ bone arrangement.:

Along the way one would find other ‘monuments’ created in the years before catacomb renovations, such as a source-gathering fountain baptised “La Samaritaine” because of later-added engravings (‘C‘ on the map)..

The oldest artifact in the catacombs is the Sepulchral Lamp, marked as ‘E’ on the map.  This was originally used by quarrymen to keep a fire burning around the clock to aid in creating a draft and circulating air.

There are also rusty gates blocking passages leading to other ‘unvisitable’ parts of the catacombs.  Many of these are either un-renovated or were too un-navigable for regular tours.

In a cavern just before the exit stairway leading to a building on the rue Dareau (former ‘rue des Catacombes’) above, one could see an example of the Quarry Inspection’s work in the rest of Paris’s underground caverns: its roof is two 11-metre high domes of naturally degraded, but reinforced, rock; the dates painted into the highest point of each bear witness to what year the work to the collapsing cavern ceiling was done, and whether it has degraded since. These “fontis” were the reason for a general panic in late-18th-century Paris, after several houses and roadways collapsed into previously unknown caverns below.

Bodies of the dead from the riots in the Place de Grève, the Hôtel de Brienne, and Rue Meslée were put in the catacombs on 28 and 29 August 1788.  These were the riots that led up to the French revolution.

The catacomb walls (outside the main tourist area) are covered in graffiti dating from the eighteenth century onwards.

Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system in Les Misérables. In 1871, communards killed a group of monarchists in one chamber. During World War II, Parisian members of the French Resistance used the tunnel system. Also during this period, German soldiers established an underground bunker in the catacombs below Lycée Montaigne, a high school in the 6th arrondissement

Although the catacombs offered space to bury the dead, they presented disadvantages to building structures; because the catacombs are right under the Paris streets, large foundations cannot be built. For this reason, there are not many tall buildings in Paris.

To appreciate the true extent of these tunnels it is necessary to take a minute and look at the map I have provided.  I assembled this from pieces in a flash animation provided by, and it’s a rather large image.  It is drawn to scale, and from one side of the map to the other is 3000 meters (9842 feet), which is just a little short of 2 miles.  The tunnels run through this area haphazardly, at various depths and at every conceivable angle, making an accurate measurement of the total length difficult.  But it is believed that there are about 300 kilometers, or 186 miles, of tunnel length in total.

Complete map of the catacombs.You’ll want to open this full size!

Only a small portion… about two kilometers… is open to the public and lit.  The rest of the tunnels are considered off-limits, and it is illegal to enter them without permission.  Cell phones do not work there, and without a light source it is pitch black.  Needless to say, they can be a pretty dangerous place given the right circumstances.

Those sharp, rusted, metal projections used to be stairs.
Good luck if you fall into that.
Did I mention it’s wet down there?
A dead-end where bones were dumped.
Someone carved this out of a wall.  Hate to bump into this in the dark.

With all this in mind it is not surprising that people have become hopelessly lost inside the tunnels.  A recent case involved three Parisian youth that were lost inside the catacombs for two days before rescuers were finally able to locate them.

In another case, a video recorder was found deep with the catacombs, detailing how one man became lost.  The man himself was never found, and the story became the topic of numerous documentaries and plenty of urban legends.  I’m including a two part video about the story here, but the narrators voice is incredibly annoying.

In 2007 the catacombs became the subject of a horror movie, aptly but unoriginally titled ‘Catacombs’.  Starring musician Pink, it centered around a young woman who became lost in the catacombs, and was actually not a half bad horror flick.

And to close things, I will leave you with a few of the better videos I found on YouTube.

If this has your curiosity piqued, I would recommend the following for further info:

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