I am out of the closet (or should that be the crypt?) as a self-proclaimed taphophile. Graveyards have long held a fascination for me and many hours over my fifty plus years have been spent in cemeteries both here in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

On occasion, on my forays into these tranquil spaces, a particular grave will pique my curiosity. This may be for a variety of reasons, an association with local history, an intriguing epitaph or a family connection.... it doesn't take much. The online availability of censuses, official registries and newspaper archives have in recent years made it possible to learn something more about the lives lived by those remembered only as fading names carved in stone. These resources provide an opportunity to put 'flesh on old bones' as the turn of phrase goes, hence the title of this blog 'Beyond the Grave'.

If anyone reading these posts has anything to add please feel free to contact me at adrianandrews@myyahoo.com.

Sunday 19 March 2023

Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go - The Catacombs of Paris March 2023


Just where does a taphophile head to for his holidays, why underground of course. The planning was perfect, an itinerary constructed with a teutonic eye for detail, baggage drop off arranged, traverses across the Metro system mapped out and guided tours booked.

The top level plan was as follows:

Paris catacombs
Pere Lachaise Cemetery ghost tour
The flea markets of Paris
The Stranglers

A full schedule for our first return to Paris since 2019, prior to the period of suspended animation, so we were determined to take in as much as possible in our short two night visit. Unfortunately, our planned tour of the cemetery was cancelled due to high winds and the associated risk of injury to the public from falling boughs.

On a positive note, nothing in the way of gales, rain, snow or plagues of frogs dropping from the sky can interfere with a tour that takes place sixty feet beneath the Parisian streets. It has long been my wish to pay a visit to one of the many catacomb complexes that exist in several European cities. A planned trip to Palermo in Sicily never materialized but Paris is a good substitute. In fact the Paris option was if anything more of a draw given the history of the site and the reasons why it was created as an ossuary.

The history is as complex as it is rich. To take it to the extreme, the history of the catacombs is to be measured on the geological timescale, when the land that Paris now occupied formed part of an ocean bed. The deposition of trillions of sea creatures on the ocean floor created over time rich seems of limestone rock. The very rock from which the city has been constructed, so-called Lutetian limestone which was extracted from the Middle Ages to 1776 when a decree ordered the closure of the quarries.

Initially, the young Parisian conurbation did not encroach upon the land undermined by the quarry chambers, since the residential area was confined to the Île-de-France. However, in time and common with all major developing cities, the footprint of Paris grew as the population mushroomed. By the 1700’s, construction had extended across the land under which the chambers and tunnels of the limestone quarries  ran. In 1774, the inevitable occurred when a significant section of Rue D’Enfer disappeared into a sink hole created as unsupported mine works collapsed. Seven residents fell eighty feet to their deaths. Paris was outraged and the quarries were closed in 1776 as a result of such instability.

The King’s State Council of Louis XVI hired an engineer, Antoine Dupont to map the quarry system and to reinforce the chambers as required to ensure that no further collapses threatened the well-being of the Parisian population.

Plaque marking the first supporting structure built in the mines. The upper stone bears the inscription 'D 1783' informing the observer that this wall was built under Antoine Dupont in 1783'.

Somewhat closer to the surface, Paris was experiencing a similar distasteful dilemma that many other European metropolises were faced with, not least London. Citizens laid great significance to being buried within the consecrated ground of the churches in which they had worshipped in life. This is of course understandable in a society far more connected to a secular way of life than we are today. However, internments in small urban churchyards over a period of hundreds of years had resulted in dramatic overcrowding. Only the wealthy could afford the luxury of burial in a single occupancy grave plot. For the majority eternal rest was something that had to be spent in close proximity with many others! The burial practice of the day meant that mass graves would remain open until such time that there were sufficient corpses interred to fill the space available and this could be a matter of weeks for each communal plot. This situation was much to the detriment of the local population who lived cheek by jowl with their departed relatives and friends.

The problem that the living had to contend with does not require too much detailed explanation, other than to say that the air in the environs of the overflowing churchyards was foul, so fetid that local folk were given to vomiting and fainting in the surrounding areas. Fayre in the local markets would rapidly go moldy or turn rancid and milk would turn sour. Beneath the ground too things were not well either as the effluent of putrifaction seeped through the earth and into the water course which in turn lead to localized outbreaks of cholera as contaminated water was drawn up through pumps for consumption.

The greatest contributor to this combined airborne and waterborne miasma was the cemetery that served the church of Saints-Innocent. As well as providing burial space for the churches own parishioners the church also served a local hospital, where at the time a high proportion of patients went into the ground rather than home after treatment and 20 other churches. The annual body count was 1,800. This demand upon a limited and confined space resulted in the level of the ground within the churchyard rising to some two and a half meters above the level of the neighbouring street.

Painting of the cemetery of Saints-Innocent in Paris c.1550. To the right can be seen a burial into a communal grave in progress whilst in the foreground clusters of skulls can be seen on the surface.

The problem was not new. In fact the State had previously prohibited further burials in the vicinity of heavily populated areas of the city. However, scant regard was paid to this ruling by the clergy who believed that they had a right, through their life’s work, to be buried within the grounds of their own churches. Likewise, wealthy patrons of a church also exercised this right. And so the overcrowding problem continued unabated. 

In 1765 Parliament moved to ban church burials stating that from that time on, burials should occur in the outskirts of the city i.e. away from heavily populated areas. This was the solution adopted by the London authorities in the 1830’s and 1840’s with the creation of garden cemeteries that would, and still do encircle the City of London. However, in Paris, the clergy objected to the plans since they did not wish to foot the bill for the creation of these new cemeteries. Thus burials continued at a phenomenal rate until one Thiroux de Crosne, the General Lieutenant of Police for Paris (1785-1789) instructed Charles Axel Guillaumot, head of the ‘Inspection Unit for the Quarries Below Paris and the Surrounding Plains’ since the Rue D’Enfer street collapse, to prepare the quarries for receipt of the dead of the Saints-Innocents churchyard.

Clearance and transfer operations commenced on 7th April 1786 with much ritual and rite. Priests offering prayers and chants processed through the streets with the remains on carts draped in black funerary sheets. 

Initially upon arrival at the catacombs the bone remains were dropped into service shafts to form large disordered piles. It was only later that attempts were made to ‘beautify’ the ossuary by arranging the skulls and long bones in an ordered fashion in cruciform arrangements and such.

In time other overpopulated cemeteries were cleared and the remains transferred to the catacombs.
With the coming of the French Revolution in 1789 any ordered planning relating to the ossuary evaporated as the new republic established its grip over the France. Greater attention was given to the creation of the corpses than to the safe disposal of those already dead as Madame Guillotine set to her bloody work during the ‘Reign of Terror’. Under these circumstances the original ruling that the catacombs would only contain historic mortal remains was overlooked. Many victims of the Revolution also lie in the chambers.

For a long period of time the catacombs were private and inaccessible to the public. However, in March 1809, an engineer by the name of Louis Etienne Hericart de Thury was appointed as head of the Department of mines and quarries. His remit was to bring some order to the mass of skeletal remains that were scattered throughout the catacombs. This ordering was with a view to opening the site to members of the public. Under him, the bones were sorted and arranged in wall-like structures that are visible today. Poorly organized tours that saw members of the public getting lost in the tunnels and allowed desecration of the momument, including the removal of skulls as souvenirs, saw the site closed once again as early as 1830. 

In the years of public access there is a famed event that took place. One of the engineers responsible for the renovation of the quarry organised a masque ball to take place in one of the chambers. Well-heeled Parisian professionals from Doctors to lawyers dinned in candlelight with accompaniment from a stringed orchestra playing ‘Danse Macabre’ whilst the skulls looked on through sightless orbits. Unfortunately, among the guests was a journalist who lost no time in reporting the event to the city’s public who were outraged by such revelry in the catacombs. These days, the authorities take a more relaxed view when it comes to the ways in which this most unusual of spaces can be used. Photoshoots are common and there are even ‘Night In A Museum’ style sleepovers that can be done for the fearless! Nevertheless, irrespective of use, the remains are to be respected.

Perhaps unsurprisingly within such a bizarre site there are surprises, one being the sculpture of Port Mahon. Carved out of a single block of limestone, a quarry worker named Decure, spent his available free-time in the catacomb engaged in producing, from memory, a depiction Port-Mahon Palace where he had been imprisoned for many years. Between 1777 to 1782 he toiled at these artistic endeavors before being killed in a tunnel collapse in the area. 

With the current, and understandable, focus on mental health the former owner of the skull below serves as a potent reminder that mental issues are not a construct of our modern era. This unfortunate has a hole in the front of the skull that cannot be assigned to post mortal trauma. Unlike the multitude of damaged skulls, this hole is perfectly spherical and intentional. This individual underwent some manner of early brain surgery (lobotomy?) presumably to relieve some form of psychosis. Look around and there are other skulls of other patients that would appear to have been undergone similar procedures.

Whether accessible or not, these ancient mines have continued to feature in the big historical events that have so shaped France.

After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, a socialist movement utterly opposed to the excesses of the previous as well as the current ruling regime established the ‘Paris Commune’ a revolutionary government that seized power in the city between March and May 1871. Crushed by the French Army, fugitive Communards sought refuge in the catacombs to no avail as they were slaughtered in the tunnels by the soldiers who entered the site in pursuit of the rebels.

More recently, the catacombs were utilized as covert headquarters by both the French Resistance and the Nazis (albeit at different times during the Second World War).

From a personal perspective, I found my time in the catacombs to be very poignant indeed. Certainly, they amply satisfy my long held fascination with the human skeleton, estimates put the body count to around six million…. that’s a lot of bones! One thing that for me was very striking is the fact that, as a result of why and how they were established, amongst this throng of departed Parisians there is no hierarchy. In this vast tomb beneath the streets of Paris, death is the absolute leveller. There is nothing here to distinguish one individual from another. The lawmaker, law enforcer and law breaker in death lay side by side (both horizontally and vertically!). Clerics, shopkeepers, craftsmen, artists and writers, in fact all of the people that over many hundreds of years shaped Paris are here…. somewhere. 
This absence of indicators of status pleased the socialists as much as it angered the class conscious living of the city.

It is also impossible when looking upon these massed remains not to wonder to an extent about the lives led or dreams and aspirations held by these Parisian forefathers.

As morbid and 'creepy' as the very idea of visiting a catacomb may be, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone with an interest in how our metropolitan areas have developed over time and to understand how the common problem of explosive urbanisation of European cities was managed at the outset of the industrial revolution.

There's a good gift shop to boot!

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