The Disturbing History of the Paris Catacombs

Beneath the beautiful and romantic city of Paris, France lies the Paris Catacombs — a burial ground where millions of remains are stowed away. What remains intact today has become the subject of countless folk tales, documentaries, and movie plots. But what is the real history of the Paris Catacombs?

Nearly 500,000 individuals descend into the Catacombs every year to see the legendary haunting site with their very own eyes. Not all have the chance to embark on the journey, but lucky for you, we’re diving into the history of the Catacombs. 

Be warned, however, if you get queasy at the mention of death or sight of human remains, this article is not for you. 

In the late eighteenth century, the cemeteries of Paris were overflowing with graves, to the point where graves became uncovered and decomposing remains were exposed to the public. Paris authorities decided to fix the issue by transferring burial remains from cemeteries to the underground network of tunnels below the city. Out of sight, out of mind, and more importantly, freeing up space for even more dead bodies. 

But what was exactly wrong with the cemeteries of Paris?

Photo: Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer, Wikimedia Commons

Why bury thousands underground? Well, the Holy Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Saints-Innocents or Cimetière des Innocents), now defunct, was once the largest cemetery in Paris. Despite starting out as a burial ground for the rich and elite, it soon became a site to host mass graves. It became the center of an overcrowding catastrophe and created multiple sanitation and public health issues.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Giant pits acted as mass graves and were dug to hold around 1,500 bodies. When full, they would close and another would be opened up right next to it. Under this system, all the available ground had been used by the end of the fourteen century — the very same century it had started under. With the ground filled up, officials were left to move burial efforts to surface level.

Rather than shutting down the cemetery or slowing down the burial rate, the Church built long galleries to the inside of all four cemetery walls called “charniers,” or charnel houses. When the cycle of mass burials filled the entire cemetery, the contents of the oldest pit would be dug up and moved into a charnier. The charnier system was hardly as successful as it sounded in curbing the cemetery’s many issues.

Photo: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

September 4, 1780, burials were forbidden in the cemetery — and all Paris cemeteries. The cemeteries’ human remains were exhumed and the bones were transported to the Catacombs in 1786. 

Plans were set into motion to make the cemetery much more lively than before — though it wasn’t too hard.

Photo: Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer, Wikimedia Commons

The church was destroyed in 1787 and the cemetery was soon replaced by a herb and vegetable market, as seen in the engraving above. The Fountain of the Nymphs that stood by the church since 1549 was taken down and rebuilt to be the center of the new market. It’s now known as the “Fountain of Innocents” and remains standing on Joachim-du-Bellay Square. 

So what does the former cemetery look like today?

Photo: Shutterstock

The beauty of the still-standing Fountain of Innocents hardly alludes to the haunting and gruesome history of the land it sits on. Now, the former burial site is a bustling hub of bistros, shops, and cafes. Just like the Fountain, the beauty found above ground can make just about anyone forget about the millions of remains resting underneath the city in the Paris Catacombs. 

Just how did those of the past decide the keep the dead so deep underground?

Photo: Émile Gérards, Wikimedia Commons

When Paris’ cemeteries, like the Holy Innocents Cemetery, were overrun and further burials were refused, authorities hunted for a new place to house remains. 

In November 1785, French architect Guillamout recommended the mines under the lieu-dit Tombe Issore, south of the Porte d’Enfer, to house burial remains after Lieutenant Lenoir suggested using Paris’ old stone mines. The stone mines were at a sufficient height – three meters high in some places. Some modifications included connecting separate rooms with new passages and galleries to practical access. They also had to find a suitable method for depositing the dead.

The map above shows the mines and the network of tunnels — around 200 miles — that run under the city of Paris. 

Photo: Shutterstock

The limestone quarries were once used for their natural resources, providing construction material for Paris’ buildings. As time passed, Paris became a sprawling city as the quarries were expanded and used for building materials. 

Throughout time, they’ve served multiple purposes and people — both alive and dead.

While a section of the tunnels was used to store human remains, farmers used the quarries to cultivate a variety of button mushrooms — the Paris mushroom. 

In some accounts, the practice began when farmers found that horses’ manure in combination with the caverns’ microclimate was the perfect setting for mushrooms to thrive. Other people claim that a farmer tossed leftover harvest into an abandoned quarry and then discovered that mushrooms grew better underground than above ground. 

By 1880, 1,000 tons of Paris mushrooms were grown in the quarries each year.

During World War II, the French Resistance used the network of tunnels to hide from the Nazis. However, Nazis also used the Catacombs to build their very own underground bunker. 

The bunker sits underneath the East Train Station — one of the busiest stations located in the heart of Paris. 

Who knew that eventually, the tunnels would be full once more — this time with human remains. 

Photo: Google Maps

Today, the Catacombs contain more than 6 million human remains and are open to visitors from all over the world. Its entrance sits at Off Place Denfert-Rochereau. You can see where it sits in relation to other famous landmarks of Paris — including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum.

Photo: Shutterstock

While the Catacombs are rich in history and a hotspot for tourists, they’re hardly the only of their kinds. In medieval Europe, it was common practice to dig up human remains and store them in channel houses and ossuaries in order to make space for fresh bodies in cemeteries. From Spain to Portugal, countries have been quite resourceful when it comes to storing their dead.

Across the multiple cemeteries that were emptied, many notable Frenchmen were buried. Many believe that it is likely that their bones are resting in the Catacombs. Some prominent figures believed to be buried in the Catacombs include: 

  • Charles Perrault (pictured above), an author best known for Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty 
  • Simon Bouet, a painter
  • Salomon de Brosse, the architect behind Luxemburg Palace 
  • François Girardon, a painter 

With famous figures possibly resting in the Catacombs, what made it the popular tourist attraction it is today?

In 1809, the Catacombs were opened up the public but visitations were limited to appointments. The site became popular among the French and foreign travelers fairly quickly. Notable figures also visited the Catacombs. In 1787, the Count of Artois, the future Charles X, visited the site with a group of court ladies. In 1814, Austrian emperor Francis I embarked on a tour. In 1860, Napoleon III took his son to the Catacombs.