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?