Explore the Catacombs of Paris

Pile of bones and skulls
Photo: Paul Haahr/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Paris was a crowded city in the late 1700s. It had a burgeoning population clamoring for housing and burial plots. The city's churches maintained their own graveyards within city limits, but they were overcrowded and unsanitary. To free up valuable real estate and get rid of the health hazard, they dug up the graves — all of them.

In 1786, officials dug up the entire below-ground population of Paris and moved the remains to abandoned quarry tunnels outside city limits. It took two years but all the dead were moved into the tunnels, which are now called the catacombs. The city would later use the bones to create elaborately stacked walls and structures that are awe-inspiring yet totally creepy. Imagine all the lives those bones represent — a 1,200-year history in the catacombs.

You can visit the catacombs for about $10, and more adventurous travelers can discover some of the city's more illicit tunnels. (However, a 1955 law made entrance into the catacombs illegal, and there's a 100 Euro fine if you're caught by the special tunnel police.) Check out this collection of curious photos from the catacombs.

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Catacombs entrance

Photo: jessica mullen/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

To enter the catacombs you must travel 60 feet into the earth, down a steep and narrow spiral stairwell. A mile walk leads to the stone portal, the entry to the ossuary, where this inscription greets visitors: "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la Mort" ("Stop, this is the empire of Death.") A step through the portal leads to the halls of bones themselves.

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Underground hideout

Photo: Jorge Láscar/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 2.0]

During World War II, French resistance fighters used the 180 miles of tunnels to dodge the Germans, who also built a bunker under the high school in Lycee Montaigne.

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Final resting place

Photo: jessica mullen/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

More than 6 million people are interred in the Paris catacombs, representing centuries of Parisian life — both poor and rich, young and old. The bones share the underground space with urns, crosses and other burial paraphernalia that were part of the church graveyards.

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Macabre art

Photo: Alexander Parsalidis/Flickr [CC by SA-2.0]

When the catacombs were built, they were simply holding areas for bones; there was no design to how they were deposited. In 1820, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury pushed through a renovation that turned the catacombs into the works of art they are today. He used graveyard decorations and tombstones to help create walls and other formations.

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Burying the dead

Photo: Nathanael Burton/Flickr [CC by SA-2.0]

Before the catacombs were built, Parisians buried their dead on the outskirts of the city. When Christianity swept the country, so did the idea that the dead should be buried in ground consecrated by clergy. Church graveyards could only keep up with a growing population for a few centuries and it wasn't long before only rich people could afford to be buried.

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Overcrowding

Photo: jessica mullen/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

The only option for poor Parisians before the catacombs was burial in a mass grave. Most people weren't buried in the caskets; they were simply buried in the next available space. When the mass grave was full, church officials would let the grave sit for as long as it took for the flesh to decompose before digging up the bones and placing them in mass tombs.

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Under construction

Photo: Kristine Riskær/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Quarrymen dug the catacombs tunnels, selling the limestone and gypsum to construct buildings, roads, sculptures and bridges. The Romans were the first to quarry the rock and used the stone to build bathhouses and the arena found on the Île de la Cité. Later, quarry stone would be used to construct the Louvre and Notre Dame.

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Danger of collapse

Photo: jessica mullen/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

In 1774, a quarry tunnel collapsed, taking a few buildings down with it. More collapses followed until King Louis XVI hired architect Charles Axel Guillaumot to stabilize the remaining tunnels. As they worked in the quarries, the men dug connecting tunnels, many which were used to house bones when the king ordered that Paris' graveyards be emptied.

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Underground art

Photo: SnippyHolloW/Flickr [CC by SA-2.0]

The ossuary is just a small part of the tunnel system known as the catacombs. The tunnels stretch for miles underneath the city streets. Breweries once brewed and stored beer in the cool underground spaces while artists painted elaborate murals that stretched down long corridors. Fans of the tunnels are called cataphiles and they enter the underground area through the few entrances that haven't been sealed off by authorities.