Catacombs <- France <- Home
One of the more bizarre things to do in Paris is to take a visit to the catacombs. These catacombs, based on the catacombs of Rome, were built in the late 1700's to house the dead from the various cemeteries around Paris. Apparently at this time the cemeteries were becoming full and conditions had deteriorated to the point that a new solution had to be found. The solution was to move the dead underground, into abandoned quarries once populated by thieves and the homeless. The skeletal remains were sorted and stacked neatly by type, modeled after the example set by Rome. There are currently approximately 6 million dead housed in the catacombs.
Although the transfer of dead from various places around Paris continued through to the 1870's, already they were being used for other purposes. The Catacombs became a popular novelty for the old nobility who held dinner parties and picnics underground. The chamber walls are full of graffiti from the 18th century onwards. In the 19th century some families even lived there. Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system in his novel Les Misérables. In 1871 communards killed a group of monarchists in one chamber. Later, during World War Two, some Parisian cells of French Resistance used the tunnel system. Germans also established an underground bunker below the 14ème arrondissement for their own purposes.
Legally speaking, going into catacombs (excluding the approved portion) has been illegal since November 2, 1955. There is a large fine (around 100 €) and a special tunnel police. The most dangerous places have been closed off, especially in the center of the city.
I took a number of photographs of our visit to the catacombs, however, since most of them contain voluminous numbers of human remains, please do not view them if you believe they might be too graphic. If you have read and understand what you are about too see, click here to view the photos.
The Official Ossuary of Denfert-Rochereau
These catacombs do not date from antiquity like those of Rome or Naples but from the 18th century. They were conceived of for reasons of hygiene and town planning.
By the 18th century, in the market district, the Cemetery of Saint Innocent, one of oldest in the capital, had effectively reached saturation.
It was proposed by the Government and the Church to use existing subterrainean quarries as catacombs to empty the cemetery of its bones.
The 'Inspection of the Tunnels' was charged to find and arrange a vast place to accomodate nearly 2 million bodies contained in the cemetery and its mass graves. The selected location was at the time outside of Paris. They were old quarries of the 15th century located on the commune of Small Montrouge in the locality of Fall-Issoire.
The name Fall-Issoire given to this place was already employed in history, several legends explain its origin. Some speak about a giant called Isouard, Isoré, Isoire or Issoire which waylaid the travellers on the road of Orleans. When this giant was caught and killed, its body was buried in this sector. Another legend tells that this giant had been a Saracen who came to besiege Paris with more than 10 000 men. What is certain is that since the Middle Ages, caverns existed on the ground of Fall-Issoire and were used as burials for the Templars of Malta.
My translation (with help from babelfish)
L'Ossuaire Officiel de Denfert-Rochereau
Ces catacombes ne datent pas de l’antiquité comme celles de Rome ou de Naples mais du 18ème siècle. Elles ont été conçues uniquement par mesures d’hygiène et d’urbanisme.
En effet, au 18ème siècle, dans le quartier des Halles, le Cimetière des Saints-Innocents, un des plus vieux de la capitale était arrivé à saturation.
Charniers du cimetière des Saints-Innocents. Il fut proposé au Gouvernement et à l’Eglise d’utiliser d’anciennes carrières souterraines existantes extra-muros pour vider le cimetière de ses ossements et en faire des catacombes.
L’Inspection des Carrières fut chargée de trouver et d’aménager un endroit assez vaste pour accueillir près de 2 millions de corps contenus dans le cimetière et ses charniers. L'endroit choisi se situait à l'époque en dehors de Paris. Il s'agissait de vieilles carrières du XVe siècle situées sur la commune du Petit Montrouge au lieu-dit de la Tombe-Issoire.
Le nom Tombe-Issoire donné à cet endroit était déjà employé dans l’histoire, plusieurs légendes expliquent son origine. Certains parlent d’un géant appelé Isouard, Isoré, Isoire ou Issoire qui détroussait les voyageurs sur la route d’Orléans. Lorsque ce géant fut attrapé et tué, son corps fut enterré dans ce secteur. Une autre légende raconte que ce géant serait un sarrasin venu assiéger Paris avec plus de 10 000 hommes. Mais il est sûr que depuis le Moyen-Age, des caveaux existaient sur le terrain de la Tombe-Issoire et servaient de sépultures aux Templiers de l'Ordre de Malte.
Source: http://gratacombes.free.fr/lossofi.htm (website no longer exists).
Infiltration.org has a detailed story from the early 2000s about cruising the illegal catacombs. There's also a nice photo essay from 2014.
Buzzfeed has also done one of their listicles on the catacombs
Please let me know if you found this interesting! If you've been to the catacombs, tell us about it!
Content by David Barber, with large sections drawn
Catacombs of Paris - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.