In Paris, there is this place named The Catacombs.

It lies far beneath the city, far beneath the metro line. It is crazy. It is scary. It is insane. In it, there are the bones of five to six million people. Starting from the late 18th century, lacking in space to put corpses, bodies of people who could not afford proper burials were moved from the overflowing charnel houses and just dumped there. The bones are piled around in heaps that line the walls. Some of the bones are in gigantic stacks. Some bones are fashioned into macabre configurations: A cross made from femurs, a real jolly roger, a heart with an arrow through it.

And all the while, as I wandered through the horrible place, I kept wondering about these people's families.

In Paris, you can visit the catacombs at Place Denfert-Rochereau. This is one of the most extraordinary places to see in Paris, although it is not for the faint of heart.

At the end of the 18th century and during the 19th century, millions of skeletons were taken out of the cemeteries in Paris because the neighbors complained about the smell, and they were stored here. The result is macabre.

Imagine that you are walking between two walls made of bones. The bones are very well ordered: big bones are separated from little bones, and skulls form regular patterns in the middle of the wall. It would look great in your living room. All of these skulls and bones belong to dead people. And behind them, you know that there are other bones and skulls, ten or twenty meters full of broken and disordered human skeletons.

At the end of the walk, you get out of the underground in a little unknown street very far away from the entrance, and you are completely lost. You have seen more dead people in 20 minutes than a medical examiner during his whole career.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Paris was greatly overcrowded, flooded with far too many people who had come seeking work or adventure, for it was a fabled city in those days: a place of learning and elegance and fashion. But there was also a great deal of filth, disease and death, and the influx of new people, often bringing new diseases, filled the city cemeteries to overflowing. In areas such as Les Halles, the cemeteries were so overcrowded that proper burial was impossible. Corpses were flung down and covered with a shallow layer of earth which was swiftly covered by more corpses, until the ground of the cemetery bulged nearly twenty feet from the surrounding pavements. The whole neighbourhood stank with the charnel reek of the rotting dead, and the very air became diseased, creating yet more corpses. François Pontrain, the last gravedigger at the cemetery of Les Innocents, was said to have buried 90,000 bodies in 35 years. It became impossible for the people of Les Halles to keep milk, and wine spoiled in the casks. The sheer weight of all the corpses in Les Innocents caused the wall of a cave beneath it to collapse in 1780, destroying many homes and crushing the inhabitants. And so, in 1785, the State Council ordered that the cemetery of Les Innocents be destroyed, and converted into a public market.

It was unthinkable that the remains be destroyed, so they had to be moved. The cave which had collapsed beneath Les Innocents led into a whole system of chalk caves which spread for kilometres beneath Paris and beyond. Caves in the area known as the Tombe Issoire had been used before for burials: the area was consecrated, and some of the orders of the Knights Templar had tombs down there. It seemed a fitting place to store the remains from Les Innocents, so on April 7, 1786, the new ossuary was consecrated by the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Paris, and the transfer of bones began that very night. At nightfall, covered wagons for the poor, and funeral chariots and catafalques for the rich left from the cemetery for the ossuary site. The disinterment and removal took 15 months, but it went so successfully that it was decided to do the same with all the other parochial cemeteries, thus creating more land for buildings. Over the next seventy years the underground bonepiles stacked up until at the end of the nineteenth century nearly eight million corpses lined the caves under Denfert-Rochereau, and more ossuaries had to be created in caves at Montparnasse and Montrouge. Unofficial ossuaries also came into being as places to put 'problematic' corpses, such as those left over from the second wave of the French Revolution. With nearly 300km of tunnels beneath the city, there was still plenty of space.

Public visits to the ossuaries started in 1814 and were popular with thrill-seekers, but in 1830 the catacombs were closed to visitors, partly because of vandalism, and partly because they were still connected to the rest of the cave network, and many visitors, wandering off, got lost. When the catacombs were re-opened by Napoleon III most of the entrances to the cave system from the 'official' section of the catacombs at Denfert-Rochereau were sealed, and the caves shored up to make them safer for visitors. You can still tour some of this section: the entrance to the guided tours is opposite Denfert-Rochereau métro. It's dark, incredibly cold, and the ceilings are claustrophobically low. Water drips constantly down the walls in places, gradually fossilizing the skulls which line the walls, grinning at you with foul yellow teeth. Black chunks of human bone grind under your feet. The atmosphere, and the smell, of the remains of seven million dead Parisians is quite indescribable. For a look, take Kevin Kelm's virtual guided tour at (in English).

Of course unofficial visits to the caves and catacombs have a history as old as the caves themselves, although they've been a lot harder since 1995, when (supposedly) Algerian bomb threats led to the sealing of unofficial city entrances and a crackdown on unauthorised urban explorers. Access now is usually from outside the city, and explorers have to watch out for the tunnel police, who can spot-fine you huge sums. The tunnels are mostly unlit, fairly dangerous, and protective clothing is a good idea, but they're amazing: eighteenth-century revolutionary graffiti, discarded nameless bones, traces of habitation during several wars - and a feeling of exploration and discovery you don't get from the official tours. Some of the unofficial explorers, or ktaphiles, have detailed maps of the cave system. For more information and a good account of a visit through the 'real catacombs', visit (in English) There are a few other sites run by ktaphiles, mainly in French.

You first descend, spiraling madly on a staircase that leans in on you, breathes heavily down your back, into the depths below the city. The sounds of the street, the clattering of shop doors, the cries of the vendeur de les fleurs peddling his wares—all of these fade first from hearing and then slowly out of existence.

You wander deeper into the darkness, the mysterious, the occult, the endless stairs dropping out of view before and behind you… A chain of buzzing incandescent bulbs process down the melancholy path until they halt at a deferential distance from the antechamber.

It is a yellowed, sterile room, painted and repainted, telling the history (en Francaise) of the Catacombs. Bated breath exhales, and you quickly glance at the pictures and move on down a hallway.

This hallway gains a life of its own, grabbing and dragging you through endless twists and turns, followed by a suspiciously long straight path only to dodge left and zigzag aimlessly again. As the dull comfort of the prior room grows further and further away, the mystery returns. The corridor is outfitted like a mineshaft, torn into the earth, and cauterized with harsh, ceaseless hall bulbs that hold the darkness from flooding in every ten feet. A wet, musty smell surrounds you, but doesn’t impede your progress. Rather, it keeps you in the catacombs, like an invisible swamp that you wade through, giving you a certainty that anyone attempting to leave would only be sucked all the harder back in.

The walls start to drip, occasionally, with small rivers that come from nowhere and to nowhere return. More and more, dark corners and intrusions into the wall conceal only darkness… Side pats chained off lead only into mystery and fear, as the barren floors creeps off into black oblivion. Around each corner is a foreboding presence but as your eyes strain, no revelation is forthcoming.

Finally, after a dozen false starts and a lengthy hike, the corridor widens and the catacomb’s true entrance lay ahead, clearly marked. Two guards stand idly by, making small talk, and a sign warning “No photography” bid you adieu. You enter the catacombs.


Perhaps it was the originally anti-climactic antechamber. Perhaps the pathways and staircases lulled you into a mistaken belief of eternal mundanity. But the catacombs are a shock: you enter a small, dark room, either side filled five feet high with arm bones, leg bones, long thin brittle… lined perpendicular to you, with piles six feet deep and ten wide. Skulls are neatly arranged in rows, dividing as if they were stylized colored tiles in some greater artistic aesthetic pattern. But the shock is that they are all, real, human bones.

Each was a living soul, went to work or to the streets begging, told jokes and laughed, had a story of its own. An aristocrat lay next to a pauper, a thief aside the sheriff, all anonymous, grinning, uniform. You start to breath again, and then realize that the room you stumbled into is not a room at all, but that you are at the beginning of a hallway that disappears in the dark distance around somber stone corners and the watchful gaze of silence. Millions and millions of bodies, now skeletons, piled. For almost a mile the unblinking stare of a million dead follows you.

And death is not like you expected, not at all. Death is not decay, not bleeding, not hollow eyes or sunken cheeks. Death is not even war or pestilence—all that is life. You expect terror, to see a rat rustling the bones, or to hear a mysterious scurrying behind a pile of thighs. But that—pestilence, sickness, dying—that is all decay, the final stages of life. Death is immutable silence, impenetrable grandeur, death is eternity. The bones have a secret—if you want to live forever, give up. It’s a contradiction, for life is only a preparation for death, and death is only perfection. The bones know not hunger or shame, pride or power, but only certainty and immortality are their garb.

After passing half a mile, of the stone crucifixes, the dozen silent prayers etched in granite, the skulls set in reverent immortals designs amongst the wall of bones, you feel your own decay, your own mortality wear away at you. And as you slowly ascend the stairs again, for a moment you are not of the living, but something transformed: you are one of them. Coming back into the vital sunlight, the noise and bustle of the street, the haunting feeling leaves you, and you shake off the gloom as a dog sheds water, but there is still the reside remaining on you as you head to a café, the residue of something altogether alien to your fundamental existence.

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