Touring bones in the Paris Catacombs

MJG Catacombs / Caves, France, World Ruins 4 Comments

Underneath Paris lie hundreds of miles of catacombs, dug over hundreds of years as quarries, tunnels, sewers and interlinked basements. Now for the most part they lie fallow, though never completely blocked-off for fear of sealing some intrepid explorers inside. Huge expanses are merely featureless tunnels of little interest, though nestled within their labyrinthine undulations can be found some fascinating pockets: rooms filled with stunning guerrilla art, bunkers from the World Wars stashed with antique munitions, secret underground cinemas, and of course the Ossuaries.

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When Su Young and I went to Paris for a few days in April I harbored a secret hope that we may unwittingly stumble across an entrance to the Catacombs, head inside, and immediately find ourselves surrounded by all kinds of awesome and amazing stuff. I posted on a few of the big urbex (urban exploration) sites seeking tips on entry, but I didn’t hold out much hope- I just didn’t have the time to put into building relationships of trust with local explorers, doing research of available locations, acquiring maps (you absolutely need a map it seems, unless you want to spend weeks roaming the miles of featureless tunnels I mentioned in the intro), or procuring gear.

So I went for the short-cut: the Official Catacombs tour. For only 8 euros you can tour 2 kilometers of the Ossuaries, filled with the bones of around 6 million Parisians and laid out in ‘romantic-macabre’ style.

The Ossuaries were filled after the cemeteries in Paris above began to overflow, spreading corruption and disease throughout the city. The first cartloads of exhumed bodies were removed from the nearby ‘Cemetery of the Innocents’ in 1786 and wheeled through the streets at night, flanked by a long procession of priests who blessed and re-consecrated the remains. That move finished 2 years later in 1788, but bodies continued to be relocated there from cemeteries all round Paris up until the mid 19th century.

I was very excited to get in there and look around. To my knowledge I’d never seen real bones before, perhaps once in biology class, though certainly not in such numbers or in such a context. However the first day we went to the ‘Place Denfert Rochereau’, the entrance to the Catacombs tour, it was Labor Day in Europe. The streets were filled with anti-capitalism protestors, and the Catacombs were closed. The next day was our last in Paris, our train was leaving around 2pm, so we bolted over there 20 minutes before opening time. There was already a long queue, which only got longer and longer as we waited, but we managed to get in after about an hour.

Once in you go down 130 steps in a tight spiral staircase, through several ‘rooms’ of museum-like informational wall-hangings, then into the caverns. For the first 10 minutes or so the walls are fairly blank, but for the odd street-name and dedication. At one intersection there are sculptures of several grand-looking buildings, carved into the rock, quite incongruous but welcome relief from the monotony of dimly-lit tunnels.

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You pass through more tunnels, then reach an archway with the caveat over the keystone: ‘Arrete! C’est ici l’Empire de Mort.’

‘Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead.’

Beyond that, for the final mile of the tour, the walls are filled with the stacked and organized bones and skulls of the dead. At first it is overwhelming, and could be a dizzying experience were it not for the other bumbling tourists surrounding you, the regular strobe of camera flashes blaring, and the constant rejoinder from Catacombs staff- ‘Pas le flash! No flash!’

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Then you’re in, and walking. It’s amazing how quickly all the bones, mossed over, musty, crumbling, start to seem like no big thing. You soon stop gawping and start reading the invocations on the walls around you-

‘Silence, you mortals! All is vanity, Silence!’

‘Where is Lady Death? Always in the future or in the past, where she is no more.’

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Su Young took a few photos, and I think that was enough for her. I took a lot, most of which were failures due to poor light, though some came through alright.

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Leaving the Catacombs is almost as surreal as the entry. You ascend a second tight spiral stair-case, and emerge directly onto a regular-looking Paris backstreet. There are no signs of which way to go, of where you are now, and no attendant, nothing but a few recalcitrant-looking skulls on a cupboard, presumably confiscated from some would-be thief. How odd, to go from the Empire of the Dead to such a bland and normal street with almost no intermediary steps.

We raced off to catch the Metro, got very confused using it, as was the case every time we attempted it, but made it back to Gare du Nord in time for our Eurostar back to London. Looking out the windows Su Young said she couldn’t stop seeing bones everywhere.

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Paris Catacombs from Michael John Grist on Vimeo.

FACTFILE

Location – Paris, France

Entry – 8 euros through the Place Denfert Rochereau in Montparnasse.

Highlights – Skulls and bones, art.

RUINS / HAIKYO

You can see all MJG’s Ruins / Haikyo explorations here:

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Comments 4

  1. You went to Paris? That’s a shame since I live there…

    I know I’ve not said a thing on this blog for nearly 5 months but it would have been a pleasure to do this trip with you, especially since I’ve never been down that place.

  2. Well, now that I’m done reading your article, that’s sad you couldn’t explore the whole thing.
    But you are extremely right one 1 point, if you want to go there on your own, you ABSOLUTELY need a map or a buddy that perfectly knows the place, since every year several people get lost and have to call the “sapeurs-pompiers” (firefighters), when the cellular works…

    I don’t want to say wrong assesments, but I think that each year, the bones have new companions that lost themselves and never found the exit.

    Now just a correction on your translation, actually it’s: “Stop! There, is the empire of The Death”. Not the deads.

    On the picture on which you can find the plate underneath “Place Denfert Rochereau”, it says: “Commander of the Domestic French Forces of Ile de France (the region in which Paris is), Chief of the Paris insurrection, Fellow of the liberation”

    On the second picture you can read “Pathway leading to the stairs”

    On catacombs14.jpg it says: “Bones from the old graveyards of La Trinité and Saint-Leu (located on the boulevard Sébastopol), dumped in 1859 in the western ossuary and transferred in the catacombs in […] 1859” I don’t undertsand the date, it might be using the revolutionnary calendar. If another French reads this, feel free to crrect me.

    catacombs20: “Where is she The Death? Always future or past. As soon as she’s there that she’s no more.” (presente in french means that she is there but it can also be a pun on the “present” tense, referring to the earlier past and future)

    catacombs22: “Quiet, mortal beings ———— Vain greatnesses, quiet. ” and on the bottom: “On the banquet of life, misfortuned (female) guest, I appeared one day and I am dying: I am dying and on my tombstone toward which I am slowly coming, none will come shed tears on it. Gilbert (an old first name)”

    Hope it helps you. Sorry for the bad translation but I’m not used to translate old french into old english…

  3. I’ve always wanted to visit the Catacombs. Looking at the bones I can’t help but imagine who these people were and what their lives were like.

  4. Crazy bone and skull art! Wow, wouldve freaked me out a bit for sure.

    Can’t fathom how hardcore it would be to find a secret entrance and wander around down there by yourself….

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