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.