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The Chilling History Behind the Paris Catacombs

History

| LAST UPDATE 08/15/2022

By Stanley Wickens

Many folk tales, movies, and documentaries talk about the Paris Catacombs - a burial ground that holds millions of remains. But for most, the true story behind this historical spot remains a mystery...

Too Many Graves

By the second half of the 18th century, the cemeteries of Paris had more graves than they could host. At some point, the graves became uncovered, and the remains of bodies laid to rest became exposed.

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In order to fix the problem, the city's authorities decided to move some of the remains from the cemeteries to an underground network of tunnels below the city. This way, they were no longer visible to the public - and there was more room in the cemeteries for new bodies. But the story didn't end there...

Holy Innocents Cemetery

After all, the city's solution only shed light on the bigger problem here: cemeteries in Paris. Although the Holy Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Saints-Innocents or Cimetière des Innocents) is now defunct, it used to be the largest cemetery in Paris.

Holy Innocents Cemetery ParisHoly Innocents Cemetery Paris
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At first, the cemetery was reserved as a burial ground for the rich and elite. But it soon became the place where several graves were built to lay countless bodies to rest. Since it later became so overcrowded, it created many sanitation and public health issues.

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No More Space

Giant pits were dug to bury several bodies at once, with each pit holding up to 1,500 bodies. Each time a pit was filled, another would be dug up right beside it to host more remains of the deceased. Soon enough, the entire side would be overflowing with remains.

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As this process continued, the available ground at the site quickly became occupied. By the end of the 14th century - the same century the cemetery began in - no more space was left. So, officials were forced to start burying the dead on surface levels.

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Charnel Houses

Rather than close the cemetery to additional burials or slow down the burial rate, the Church took a different approach. Instead, it built long galleries on the inside of all four of the cemetery's walls - these were called "charniers," or charnel houses.

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After a cycle of mass burials was completed, the remains lying in the oldest pit would then be unearthed and moved into one of the cemetery's charniers. However, the charnier system turned out to be less effective in solving the issue than originally planned.

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A New Plan

It wasn't until September 4, 1780, that burials officially became forbidden in the cemetery - not only this one, but in all Paris cemeteries. The remaining dead bodies were then dug out from the ground, and the bones were moved to the Catacombs in 1786.

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Following the move in the late eighteenth century, the city began to plan to turn the cemetery into something a lot more lively than before. However, considering the massive amount of dead bodies that had accumulated at the site over the centuries, that turned out to be not too difficult to accomplish.

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The Fountain of Innocents

Soon after the dead bodies were removed from the site, the church was destroyed in 1787. The cemetery was turned into an herb and vegetable market that was bustling with life - something very different from its previous function. It became a busy center filled with people.

Fountain of the Nymphs ParisFountain of the Nymphs Paris
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In addition, the Fountain of the Nymphs that had been built beside the church in 1549 was torn down and later rebuilt so that it would stand in the center of the new market. It still stands in Joachim-du-Bellay Square to this day and is now known as the “Fountain of Innocents.” So what does it look like today?

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A Center Filled With Life

The Fountain of Innocents, which was once a haunting and horrifying burial ground is now a beautiful structure whose dark history is invisible to the naked eye. And what used to be a massive burial site is now a center with busy shops, cafes, and bistros.

Fountain of Innocents marketFountain of Innocents market
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This new market is now such a beautiful place filled with refreshing life. Like the Fountain, it too almost erased the gruesome history of the burial site - with its millions of remains - that once took up space in the Paris Catacombs. But why were the dead once kept so deep underground?

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Old Stone Mines

It all began back in 1785, when Paris' cemeteries, just like the Holy Innocents Cemetery, became too crowded and would no longer allow new burials. Authorities would then look for new places to lay the dead to rest. And in November of that year, French architect Guillamout had an idea.

Guillamout Holy Innocents CemeteryGuillamout Holy Innocents Cemetery
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When Lieutenant Lenoir suggested using Paris’ old stone mines, Guillamout recommended the mines under the lieu-dit Tombe Issore as an alternative burial site. They made some changes, which included connecting separate rooms to make access more practical. Finding an appropriate way to bury the remains was also crucial.

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The Limestone Quarries

The stone mines, which measured up to three meters high, included a network of tunnels covering an area of around 200 miles running under the city. The natural resources of the limestone quarries were once used to provide construction material for Paris’ architecture.

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However, over time, the quarries were expanded as Paris became a large and busy city. Then not only were they beneficial for the building materials that they provided, but they also came to serve several purposes. Soon, not only were the living benefiting from the quarries... but so were the dead.

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The Paris Mushroom

While only part of the tunnels was reserved for storing the dead, other sections of the quarries were used to grow a type of button mushroom called the Paris mushroom. By the end of the 19th century, 1,000 tons of mushrooms were cultivated in the quarries every year.

Paris quarries button mushrooms Paris quarries button mushrooms
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According to some, farmers began to use the quarries for this purpose after they discovered that horses' manure, combined with the microclimate of the caverns, created a great environment for the mushrooms to grow. Others claim it started after a farmer threw leftover harvest into a quarry and saw the mushrooms grew much better.

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Hiding From the Nazis

But these tunnels have even more secrets to them than mushrooms and the corpses of the dead. Apparently, living human beings used them for shelter as well. During the Second World War, the French Resistance used this network of underground tunnels to hide from the Nazis.

French Catacombs WWII HistoryFrench Catacombs WWII History
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However, it wasn't just the French who found the Catacombs helpful. Nazis also used them to build their own underground shelter for the war, and it can be found underneath the East Train Station - one of the busiest in the city - in the center of Paris.

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A Popular Attraction

Thanks to their rich history - in both a fascinating and a gruesome way - the Catacombs are quite a popular attraction in the capital city of France today. This underground site holds more than 6 million remains and can be visited by tourists from all over the world.

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The entrance of the Catacombs is located at Off Place Denfert-Rochereau, with a giant lion statue in the middle of the square. Tourists who have spent their day visiting the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Museum may want to swing by to catch a glimpse of the old burial site.

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Digging Up Old Remains

Despite the incredible history of the Catacombs and their popularity among tourists visiting the city, it may be surprising to know that there are many like them across Europe. Several other countries have come up with smart and creative ways to bury their loved ones.

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For example, in medieval Europe, it was not uncommon to dig up old remains of humans that had passed away and store them elsewhere. Sometimes, dead bodies were moved to channel houses and ossuaries so that some space was cleared up for the more recently deceased.

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Famous French Figures

The French, like lots of other countries in Europe, were quite inventive when it came to coming up with solutions to find space to bury their dead. And in several of the cemeteries that have been emptied lie the bodies of quite a few famous French figures.

Paris Catacombs famous figuresParis Catacombs famous figures
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Among these is Charles Perrault, who wrote the well-known stories Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty. Others include painters Simon Bouet and François Girardon, and architect Salomon de Brosse, who built Luxemburg Palace. Soon, the Catacombs began to attract many visitors...

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Visitors of the Catacombs

Despite the fact that they became accessible to the public in 1809, the Catacombs were still reserved for those who had made appointments to visit them. The burial site quickly became a popular destination for French travelers, as well as foreign ones.

Paris Catacombs famous visitorsParis Catacombs famous visitors
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Not only did travelers come to visit the Catacombs, but this site also attracted many notable figures as well. For example, it was visited by the Count of Artois - who would soon become Charles X - in 1787. The following century, Napoleon III visited the site in 1860 with his son.

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Visiting Arrangements

Seeing the prominent historical figures who've toured the site, it's no wonder the Catacombs are so popular today. But their rise to popularity wasn't without its difficulties. In fact, visiting arrangements were frequently shut down during the 19th century.

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Sometimes the site was closed off to tourists - or other visitors - entirely. Other times, it would be open to the public once a month or even every few months. But over the years, the site became more stable when it came to accessibility for the public.

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The Site's Tours

Today, visiting the Paris Catacombs is, fortunately, a lot easier. Since they do not require any kind of authorization, just about anyone can tour the historical site. Every year, the Catacombs welcome around half a million tourists through legal tours.

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However, there remain a few restrictions on visiting the Catacombs. Those who visit the site are allowed to access just over a mile of the network of tunnels that run under the city. Since only 200 visitors are allowed to be inside at any given time, it's not uncommon to see a long line at its entrance.

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Heading Inside

Anyone planning on visiting the Catacombs today can start their journey at Place Denfert-Rochereau. One of the largest and most important squares in Paris, it's named after the French commander who played a major role in the Franco-Prussian war. In the square are many shops and restaurants to grab a quick bite before going in.

Place Denfert-Rochereau ParisPlace Denfert-Rochereau Paris
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At the only entrance for visitors is a small green Pavillion, after which visitors go down 130 steps - around 65 feet - to get to the underground entrance. After reaching this second entrance, the actual graves where the remains are stored are only a fifteen-minute walk away.

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Going Underground

After walking the fifteen minutes, visitors will finally arrive at the exact place where millions of dead bodies are stored. A few can be found carefully stacked in piles along the walls of the rooms and halls under the ground. Others are presented in a much more chaotic fashion...

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The remains that are not neatly stacked are otherwise tossed in piles on the floor, making up a blanket of bones that are visible to tourists. While the Catacombs are visited by thousands of people every year through official tombs, others take on the mission of exploring them alone - illegally.

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Movie Inspirations

The Catacombs of Paris, with their haunting history, have become the subject of many movies and inspired several stories over the years. The most recent of these is the horror movie As Above, So Below, whose plot largely includes the Paris Catacombs.

Paris Catacombs inspired movieParis Catacombs inspired movie
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Directed by John Erick Dowdle, the film tells the story of a documentary crew's experience exploring the Paris Catacombs and facing supernatural phenomena during their time there. While the movie may scare off a few people planning to visit, others might be convinced to book a flight to Paris after seeing it.

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The Philosopher's Stone

But although As Above, So Below contained actual footage of the site in Paris, the magical touch to it was fabricated. The story's main character, Scarlett Marlowe, goes into the tombs in search of the philosopher's stone from the first Harry Potter novel - thanks to the immortality it offers.

Scarlett Marlowe philosopher's stoneScarlett Marlowe philosopher's stone
Scarlett MarloweGEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / Contributor via Getty Images

Not only that, but the stone was also said to turn any metal into pure gold. But in the film, their path down the steps and into the cemeteries is obstructed by demons and other horrifying creatures. As they journey deeper into the ground, their endeavor turns out to be very different from what they expected.

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The Cataphiles

However, the movie did get a few things right, one of them being the adventures people take on in the Catacombs. Only a small part of the underground network of tunnels is open to the public to explore. However, some people don't exactly come to the Catacombs to follow the rules...

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People who enter the Paris Catacombs illegally are called cataphiles. These intruders use secret passages to enter the underground mines, including sewers, manholes, and even the metro. They stay underground for hours - or even weeks - taking photos and exploring the site.

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Illegal Intruders

The cataphiles who decide to explore the site illegally are so well-known that they even have their own police who come after them. Known as the cataflics, the job of these officers is to patrol the underground tunnels that aren't accessible to the public.

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Not only that, but cataphiles also have their own rules that they use to patrol themselves. The first of these golden rules is, "What comes down must go up." To put it simply, this rule means no littering. They pick up any waste they drop in order to respect the Catacombs.

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"Never Speak Of The Above"

The second rule these illegal urban explorers follow is: "never speak of the above." This means that their lives above the ground are not mentioned during their visit to the Catacombs. On top of that, they almost never share personal information, even using false identities while underground.

Paris Catacombs cataphiles rulesParis Catacombs cataphiles rules
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The third and final rule pretty much makes sense for the situation these explorers are in: "never trust anyone." We wouldn't either if we were illegally exploring a historical site with a special police force looking for us. Cataphiles naturally have good navigational skills that help them through the complex tunnels underground.

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Exploring The Waters

Not only do they have to be experts at making their way through the tunnels, but these explorers also have to harbor a love for adventures. Some cataphiles even journey to the Catacombs to swim in its muddy water, which fills the tunnels every time they get flooded.

Paris Catacombs Underground poolsParis Catacombs Underground pools
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These aquatic tunnels are no luxury swimming pool - rather, the explorers who dare to venture into their dark waters find themselves in a murky situation. But luckily, those who've been in these tunnels before share the maps of the secret underground pools with each other.

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Secret Underground Shows

But the muddy underground pools aren't the only thing bringing in explorers illegally. Cataphiles have created secret underground theaters in the Catacombs - and they're very popular among this adventurous group. YouTuber Messy Nessy Chic traveled to her friend's underground theater to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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Olivier FAY / Contributor via Getty Images

Police found others like this theater at the site. They discovered a large screening room with a screen, screening tech, and even a restaurant and bar. Not only that, but someone left a hidden camera installed in the room. Yet, they were still unable to find out who created the room.

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The Ghost of Philibert Aspairt

A lot of folklore also surrounds the Paris Catacombs. One of these is the myth of the Ghost of Philibert Aspairt, who was a doorman at the Val-de-Grâce hospital during the French revolution in 1793. According to the myth, he was requested to fetch some liquor from a cellar and accidentally wound up in the Catacombs.

Val de Grâce hospitalVal de Grâce hospital
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Equipped with just a single candle and knowing nothing of the complex network of tunnels that ran underground, the doorman quickly became lost. According to legend, he ended up consuming the liquor he was asked to bring, making it even harder for him to find his way back - and sadly, he never did.

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The Devastating Discovery

Philibert Aspairt's body wasn't found until eleven years after he initially ventured into the Catacombs. It was discovered by a group of cataphiles, and they succeeded in identifying him thanks to the hospital key that was still attached to his belt.

Philibert Aspairt burial tombPhilibert Aspairt burial tomb
Olivier FAY / Contributor via Getty Images

The deceased doorman was buried in the Catacombs, where the cataphiles discovered his body. He was given a proper burial and tombstone that described how he lost his life. Hundreds of years later, cataphiles still believe that his ghost haunts the underground tunnels.

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Stolen Artifacts

Several others besides Aspairt have wandered into the tunnels looking for liquor. In 2017, a few travelers broke into an underground cellar using the Catacombs and stole 300 bottles of vintage wine. The finishing touch to their adventure was breaking through the limestone wall.

Paris Catacombs liquor theftsParis Catacombs liquor thefts
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A few years prior to this robbery, another group of crooks broke into a restaurant's underground cellar and stole more than 100 bottles, which were worth an estimated $500,000. However, authorities managed to catch them when they attempted to resell the stolen bottles.

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Gone But Not Forgotten

Beneath the beautiful and romantic capital of France, the Paris Catacombs are anything but simple. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are eager to visit the underground burial site - whether legally or illegally, despite their long, dark history.

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Of course, any written info about the Paris Catacombs we could include in this article wouldn't come close to the real experience - just ask those who risked getting caught by the cataflics. In our opinion, a trip to Paris isn't complete without venturing into these fascinating cemeteries...

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