What do you do when you have millions of bodies, some only partially decomposed, overflowing in a space no bigger than a few city blocks? The answer lies beneath the streets of Paris, one hundred feet below the surface. For as much as it’s known as the City of Lights, Paris is also home to ‘The Empire of the Dead’, one of the largest grave sites in the world.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the authorities governing the swelling population of Paris faced a crisis. There are three things that a civilized society wishes to remain hidden from view; human waste, senior citizens and the deceased, and Paris had officially ran out of space for dead people. Every cemetery, most notably the Cimetiere des Innocents, had long since exceeded capacity, so much so that corpses were contained in burial mounds some 6 feet above street level as well as 60 feet deep into the ground. As we saw in the previous article, heavy rain even caused the collapse of a cellar wall below a restaurant adjoining the cemetery, spilling effluence and molding corpses into the basement.
The solution to this monumental and particularly smelly problem was the massive and ancient underground quarry structure beneath the Paris streets, which would receive the dead in all their anonymous millions. Mined for its gypsum and limestone that was used to construct Paris in the Middle Ages, the bedrock was riddled with over 200 miles of tunnels, and also undoubtedly the bones of many of the miners who had helped chisel it out. The network of the tunnels were mostly forgotten until 1774 when a 100-foot stretch of the Rue d’Enfer collapsed down 90 feet. After a massive twelve year public works project to reinforce the crumbling tunnel network, the structure was finally ready to receive its first ‘inhabitants’ in 1786.
Exhuming the millions of bodies from Holy Innocents Cemetery was no easy task and took over two years to complete. It was a project of both great logistical complexity and religious sensitivity, not to mention an undertaking of stomach-churning proportions, utilizing workers that represented the very poorest of the city’s inhabitants. Excavation began in the oldest burial pits first (containing the more decomposed bodies), in order to then relocate the remains to the small section of Paris tunnel designated to become the catacombs.
Beneath the thin veil of soil that covered the mounds, there was nothing but dense thickets of bones of every description to a depth of 60 feet. Little remained that provided evidence of the names or identities of those buried, one after the other having been dropped unceremoniously into the pits for three centuries. At deep levels, the fumes of the accumulated rot must have forced workers to work only short shifts lest they choke on the smell, and any wound suffered during the process would have almost certainly become infected in short order.
The more recently occupied burial pits would have revealed even more horrific circumstances for the poor laborers, as the bodies were packed so densely in the holes that their decay was slowed, being deprived of the essential component oxygen to aid the decomposition. To remove tissue and flesh, bones were boiled and burned before being stacked in their millions for removal.
It was under the cover of darkness that the remains were relocated to their new home. For two years, nightly cavalcades of carts and barrows, accompanied by chanting priests, transported the bones of the deceased in the closest resemblance of post-life dignity that could be afforded to so massive an undertaking. Other cemeteries in the area were similarly emptied, until the catacombs housed the remains of over 9 million Parisian dead.
The modern and renowned beauty of the arranged skeletal remains came to be in 1810, designed by the verbosely named Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, whose greatest contribution was organizing the mile-long ossuary into a location suitable for tourists. In doing so he decorated and covered the many structural elements of the tunnels with the bones themselves, creating grotesque and macabre patterns, archways and galleries of skulls in high romantic style.
As well as the many obelisks and markers etched with poetic references throughout the site, above the door to the underground mausoleum are still etched the words: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort (‘Halt! This is the empire of the dead’). Each twist and turn down the dark and foreboding passages reveal ever more bones and remains. Human femurs, tibia, ribs and curved spinal columns are stacked against every wall, meters deep. Hollow eye sockets stare at you, as if challenging your presence in this resting place for so many of the forgotten dead.
And perhaps this is the essence of the tourist appeal. That below the vibrant and colorful city of Paris, deep below the treading feet of her living citizens, are the silent and still remains of so many millions of dead from the city’s long history. To be confronted with this example of death in such stark, gargantuan terms, is both thrilling, humbling and terrifying. Even when returning to the fresh air of the surface, the lingering reminder of our inevitable, ignoble fates will never be far from our minds.