April 25, 2005

City of the Dead

Come away, come away death
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Just beneath Paris, the City of Light and joie de vivre, lies another city - dark, dead and seemingly as vast as Hades itself. Under the 14th Arrondissement are found the remains of over six million Parisians. They ended up in this subterranean region, which stretches out over an area equal to six or seven blocks, for a very simple reason: there was no other place for them.

Over the centuries, as Paris grew, its cemeteries became so overcrowded it was necessary to clear them out. In addition to the lack of space for more burials, many districts were suffering from contamination caused by poor burials and mass graves in the churchyard cemeteries that spread disease in the area.

Originally the caves were depleted limestone quarries, some from the Roman times dating back as far as 60 B.C. From those same underground tunnels and chambers had come the limestone used to build much of the city itself. Burial use was established by the order of the Lt. General of Police, and by the Inspector General of Quarries in 1786.

Remains from the Cemetery of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs and others were the first. Also bodies of the dead from the riots in the Place de Grève, from the Hotel de Brienne, and from Rue Mesleé, were put in the Catacombs in 1788.

Hundreds of cartloads of bones were hauled from burial grounds to their new resting place. Individual identities were lost, but it is likely many French luminaries are interred here, including the instigator of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre, his rival Danton who perished at the guillotine, and Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV.

The "Catacombs" represent only eight percent of all the galleries. The underground quarries spread, with about 300 kms of galleries, under the 5th, 6th, 8th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 20th districts. The most extended network, located under the 5th, 6th and 14th districts, is about one hundred kilometers long.

The chamber walls are full of graffiti from the 18th century onwards. In the 19th century, some families even lived there. Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system in his novel Les Misérables. In 1871, communards killed a group of monarchists in one chamber and during World War II, some Parisian cells of the French Resistance used the tunnel system. Germans also established an underground bunker below the 14ème arrondissement for their own purposes.

You can find a pretty good on-line tour of the catacombs here.

I went to the catacombs several times while living in Paris and found them absolutely fascinating. The tunnels are lined with chambers, about 3 meters deep, that are filled with bones. Most of them have a wall built at the front of the chamber out of the skulls and femurs and the rest of the bones are thrown behind the wall. A lot of the walls are very intricate, the skulls arranged in patterns such as crosses, hearts or geometric shapes.

Throughout the tunnels, you'll find several memorial plaques documenting where certain groups of bones are from as well as several with sayings that can be a bit sarcastic or disconcerting. This is one of my favorites:

It reads: "Crazy as you are, why do you promise to live a long time, you who cannot count on a single day." Indeed!


  1. I've always wanted to visit that place. It seems so cool and with so much history around it.

    I'm taking you as a tour guide if I ever go!

  2. Me too.
    I've actually been there twice, but the only underground things I've done is take the Metro and ask for my steak (gasp!) well-done.

  3. Hi Sunbeam! ~ How absolutley amazing - of course you know my facination with graveyards and such. I was just thinking about how up front and personal you were with such total anonymity.
    Giving tours??? :)
    Michael ~ I didn't know they cooked steak - do they have steak?

  4. Pup - Paris or the Catacombs? Paris, of course, is phenomenal. I'd be happy to be your tour guide!

    Michael - oh, the Metro - another adventure entirely. Well done steak? Quel horreur! lol

    Seamus - Yes, I know about a lot of your fascinations. ;) You let me know when you want that tour - ready, willing & able. :)

  5. Never been there- but, wow, that looks cool!

  6. I'd take a trip there too. Hey some guy we don't know had us linked on his site today here's his link...
    Happy Monday y'all!
    Lois Lane

  7. I never thought I would want to visit Paris, but I might be changing my mind...I'll beg you to be my tour guide as well.

    You and Seamus need to come visit me - I live three blocks from Brooklyn's biggest cemetery, Greenwood. Lotsa notables buried there: Boss Tweed, Horace Greeley, Leonard Bernstein, the list just goes on and on.

  8. Schaweet! Let's have a blogger get-together in Paris!

    Brighton - it is!

    Lois - yeah, I saw that on my referrals. heh

    Julz - Paris is so awesome, I can't tell you. Come to NY with him? hmmm...sounds like fun. I've always wanted to visit NY outside of JFK. lol

  9. I'm with you... blogger trip to Paris!!!! Fascinating! Actually makes me want to visit Paris again!!

  10. Well, you both have this interest in cemeteries. Anyone else with an interest in graveyard is also welcome, how 'bout that? :)

  11. Nanner - that would rock SO hard!

    Julz - Oh, don't get me wrong. That opportunity would have me asking when the next flight boards. lol We have a lot of common interests...

  12. How ultimately kick ass that would be... go to Paris with Celti as the guide!! But what I really want to say is: what a great post! Fascinating... AND I learned something. You da bomb, bay-bay!!