Sightseeing in Paris Pt. 2: The Catacombs

After meandering through The Louvre (see Sightseeing in Paris Pt. 1), my family and I decided to end our second day in Paris by tackling an unusual item on my bucket list: Visiting the Catacombs of Paris.

I wouldn’t say the ossuaries deep underneath the bustling city of Paris were high on my bucket list, but they’ve maintained my curiosity ever since I read the first installment of The 39 Clues series back in elementary school, an adventure novel involving the Catacombs. When my brother proposed we visit the Catacombs, I was quick to add it to our weekend itinerary.

Perhaps before I could think better of it, I was climbing down a seemingly endless spiral staircase towards the remains of over six million Parisiennes. The Catacombs are located in the old stone quarries 20 meters below the city, meaning they sit deeper underground than the Paris Metro system. As the city grew towards the end of the 18th century, it faced a public health crisis: many of the cemeteries situated near the city’s center were overflowing, limiting space and threatening the hygiene of the living. When one of the mass graves at Les Innocents cemetery collapsed into the basement of a neighboring property, the situation became urgent. Authorities determined that the abandoned quarries beneath the city were the best solution, and the transfer of remains from graves across Paris commenced in 1777. It took several decades to move the millions of Parisienne remains to their final resting place and organize them into neat rows (or the occasional shape of a heart or cross) before the Catacombs opened to visitors.

Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort.

Hanging above the entrance to the ossuary is an eerie engraving that reads,
“Stop, this is the empire of the dead.”

It’s an odd tourist attraction to be sure— one can’t help but wonder, should we be allowed to view these remains, to stare in wonder or discomfort at what’s left of people who lived long before us? Would those people have wanted their remains the be on display for the world to see?

I don’t have answers to those questions, nor— as you’ve surely noticed— photos of the Catacombs to share out of respect for those who rest there. If this blog post has sparked your curiosity about the Catacombs and you’re considering a visit, I will offer a few words of caution: the Catacombs are not accessible (there is no elevator, only 131 stairs) and the tunnels are often tight and dark. If you experience claustrophobia or have difficulty with stairs and rough terrain, I would perhaps spare yourself the visit. Though I had never experienced claustrophobia before visiting the Catacombs, my chest suddenly squeezed with panic at the entrance of the first tunnel leading to the ossuaries when I realized just how deeply underground I had ventured. I felt almost motion sick as I forced my feet down the cramped passageway. Thankfully, deep breaths and internal mantras helped to ease the tightness in my chest, and I made it through the tour just fine. Ironically, the tunnels filled with bones were a welcome respite from the narrow passages that lead me there.

Who would have guessed that the depth of the Catacombs would be more unsettling than its walls of human skulls?

“Où est-elle la mort?

Toujours future ou passée.

A peine est-elle présente, que déjà elle n’est plus.

A quote from Edward Young, carved into stone within the catcombs: “Where is death? Always future or past. No sooner is she present than she is no longer.”

Published by rachael.grochowski

Class of 2022 English Literature and Japanese Studies Double Major, French Minor IES Nantes, France

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