01 Dec The Dark Secrets of the Paris Catacombs
The Hidden Secrets of the Paris Catacombs
There is something inherently scary and taboo about graveyards. For many, they are one of the most terrifying places on the planet.
If your little neighborhood cemetery is enough to give you goose bumps, wait till you learn more about a sinister place beneath the streets of Paris that houses the bones of millions of the dead!
Paris is well known for its love of fashion, romance and culture, but beneath its brightly lit streets, dark secrets reside. The mysteries of the vast Catacombs of Paris will make you shudder.
The Catacombs house the remains of more than six million Parisians.
In the 18th century, the city of Paris was growing fast, and cemeteries were running out of space. Overflowing cemeteries and inadequate burials created insalubrious conditions where disease spread quickly. The city’s cemeteries were literally overflowing with decomposing bodies. The decision to close down these sites rife with disease and pestilence was taken, and so the remains of the dead were dug up.
But what to do with the bodies? The city’s underground galleries would provide the solution! Between 1780 and 1814, the remains of the more than 6 million bodies were successfully transported by cart from the city’s cemeteries to their new resting place below ground. At last they could rest in peace.
The Catacombs are much larger than you would ever have imagined!
While the remains of many are located in the vast network of tunnels, most are deposited in funerary chambers called ‘ossuaries’. These are now accessible to the larger public. There remains, however, miles and miles of additional maze-like tunnels in the Catacombs. These were originally quarries dug out by Parisian miners to provide stone for construction before finding use as improvised cemeteries.
It is estimated that of the 320 kilometres of tunnels, only a fraction of them are well-known. But what else can be found in these rarely explored tunnels?
An ‘oasis’ in the depths of the Catacombs
Apparently, the idea of going for a dip in the municipal swimming pool is not everyone’s cup of tea. Believe it or not, there are adventure-seekers out there who would rather cool off below ground in the Catacomb’s secret pools. These are not of course on any local list of swimming pools, and better known as ‘improvised pools’ by the ‘Cataphiles’, for whom exploring the Paris’ underground is a passionate hobby.
But be aware of what you’re getting into if you want to swim in such an ‘oasis’; if the idea of wading in foul-smelling murky waters while navigating extremely narrow tunnels is your idea of a good time, then all you need to do is find a way in. You still need to know the right person with the right key and this is easier said than done!
A place for clandestine activities
In 2004, while carrying out exercises in the Catacombs, the police came across something completely unexpected.
While exploring an isolated area of the vast network of tunnels, they discovered a huge room with a full-sized cinema screen and projection equipment, complemented by an informal restaurant and bar, complete with pressure cooker for preparing couscous! At least three telephone lines and a professionally installed electrical system completed the find. More puzzling still, in the access tunnel there was a desk and a closed-circuit TV camera set to automatically film and record anyone passing.
To this day, the identity of the person(s) behind this underground cinema is unknown. When the police came back a second time, the phone and electricity lines had been cut and they found an ominous note waiting for them: ‘Do not try to find us!’ it read.
One has to admit though, even if there are better places to watch a film, accompanied by a drink and dinner, the idea is very tempting!
A ‘flood’ of corpses
Before the Catacombs took over, ‘Les Innocents’ was the oldest and most used cemetery in the city. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, the lack of space in the Paris cemeteries posed a major problem. In the 18th century, so many people were buried there that the strong stench of rotting bodies permeated throughout the city. For the locals, these smells became unbearable. To make things worse, when heavy rains fell on the region, the cemetery would become completely flooded, creating a pestilent sludge. The result was catastrophic, with a multitude of bodies that could not be properly buried for lack of space floating in the infect waters. During the 1780s, it was decided to exhume all the bodies from the problematic cemeteries and relocate them to just one place: The Catacombs. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Communities of cataphiles living in the tunnels
Cataphiles are those for whom exploring every nook and cranny of Paris’ underground galleries is a passion. They spend most of their spare time down there. They have an elevated respect for the dead as well as the depths that shelter them.
Moreover, they spend an inordinate amount of time cataloguing and mapping out the seemingly endless tunnels. Thanks to their research and dedication to the community, the risks of any of their number getting hopelessly lost in the immensity of the necropolis are much reduced. All information collected by the cataphiles to access the Catacombs is kept within their group. The cataphiles have built up a very exclusive and close-knit community over the years. Among them can be found artists who come together to immortalise the walls with their creative expressions. And there are others who dedicate themselves to arranging and decorating the underground spaces. And of course, there are the party-goers who go down to just dance and listen to music.
Good wine in the Catacombs?
Would you think it’s possible to find good wine where death, bones and mould reign? Maybe not today, but it was possible in 2017. A gang of thieves used the Catacombs to access a wine cellar in the basement of a Parisian apartment. They made off with 300 bottles of vintage wine valued at a quarter of a million euro.
‘Decorative’ pieces made from old bones
the ‘barrel’ [/ caption]
When the bones of the dead were first brought to the Catacombs in 1780, they were first stored and subsequently blessed by a priest before being left to their eternal rest. It was not until later that the workers began arranging the old bones in decorative structures such as hearts or circles. Even the walls were lined with skulls, bones and other macabre remains.
One of the most famous of these structures is the barrel (‘tonneau’ in French). As its name implies, it is a large barrel-shaped construction built up using skulls and tibia bones. It was erected to support the ceiling of the room called the ‘Crypt of the Passion’ (or ‘Tibia Rotunda’) in which it is located. It’s not really the kind of structural engineering one would use at home! That said, it does its job keeping up the ceiling and that’s what counts!
The Catacombs, an ideal place for mushroom growers
This practice came about in the 19th century, more precisely on the day a certain Parisian named Monsieur de Chambéry decided to venture into the tunnels of the Catacombs. In one of the underground rooms, he came across young mushrooms growing enthusiastically. And so, he got the idea to use the abandoned tunnels to cultivate his own ‘mushrooms of Paris’. It didn’t take long for the practice to be quickly accepted and adopted by the French National Society of Horticulture.
The word also spread quickly amongst the mushroom-growing community. Soon, people came from all over France to the deep necropolis, to grow their own mushrooms. The cultivation of mushrooms in the Catacombs grew rapidly and become a prosperous enterprise! Actually, it makes perfect sense, given that the humidity and darkness of the tunnels were perfect conditions for growth. As far as fertilizer was concerned, it remains to be seen if the old bones of the dead dispersed more or less everywhere had a role to play in all that. Indeed, if you know where to look, you would surely come across someone cultivating mushrooms away to their heart’s content.
The Catacomb tunnels were used by both sides during the Second World War!
During the Second World War, the existence of the Catacombs and the hundreds of miles of underground tunnels was well known. So, it should come as no surprise when they were used for the war effort. What is surprising is that they were used by both sides!
During the war, members of the French Resistance constantly used underground tunnels in order to plan their attacks against the Germans without being interrupted. It was in the Catacombs that they managed to hide from enemy spies and avoid detection.
Yet the most surprising thing is that the Nazis themselves also used parts of the Catacombs to build bunkers, like the one found under the Lycée Montaigne, remains of which still exist today.