A post for Halloween
The catacombs beneath Paris are one of the most haunting, but in many ways most beautiful places I have ever been.
The catacombs occupy only 1/800th of the quarries that honeycomb the earth beneath Paris and they were begun in the 1700s. They are the largest catacombs in the world and hold around six million skeletons.
The catacombs were built to solve a very specific problem. By 1785 the cemetery of innocents, in the vicinity of Les Halles, had been in use for nearly ten centuries and had become overcrowded and was a serious source of infection. On the 9th of November 1785, after many complaints from local inhabitants, the Council of State decided to close the cemetery to any more internments and to remove its contents. A general survey of the quarries of Paris had just been completed and it was decided to use them to re-inter the inhabitants of the cemetery. Rebuilding work to strengthen them was undertaken on the sections of the quarries that were to be used and a staircase was put in. The first re-internments in the catacombs began after the consecration and the blessing of the site on the 7th of April 1786.
This particular period of re-internment continued until 1788. The re-internment was always done at nightfall and followed a ceremony where a procession of surplice garbed priests sang the service for the dead along the route of the carts carrying the bones. The carts were covered by a black veil. The bones were then placed in the catacombs.
This process was continued until 1814 as remains from other cemeteries were removed and re-interred in the catacombs. More remains were re-interred between 1842 and 1870.
The catacombs became an unlikely tourist attraction. In 1787 the future Charles X made the descent accompanied by some ladies of the court. In 1814, Francis I, the Emperor of Austria, visited them and in 1860 Napoleon III went down accompanied by his son. They remain a tourist attraction today with thousands coming each year and queueing for hours for entrance. The outwards facing sections of the walls of bones are built mainly of leg and arm bones with skulls interspersed in between. As you can see from the photos much of the building has been quite decorative. Sadly some of the skulls have been graffitied, see photo below, and some people try to steal bones. All bags are searched on the way out.
I have never had a greater sense of the mortality of humanity and the crushing passage of time than I have had in the catacombs. The one phrase that kept going around and around in my head like a broken record was: remember man thou art but dust and unto dust thou shall return. Nowhere have I seen greater evidence of that.
The photo from the entrance to the catacombs is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Paris. The remainder are my own.
For more information see
http://www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/catacombs or visit if you are ever in Paris. Though I recommend getting there really early.