The air was cold and damp. More than damp – the water sat in a dense humidity all around us like a cloying mist. Round me snaked the stacked coils of the dead – radius, ulcer, tibia, skull. So went the procession – the only physical remains of lives once lived, stored in hollowed out mines beneath the streets of Paris. These are the Catacombs.
Getting in can be quite troublesome. The queue was long, despite the fact I got there before the door opened and I went during term time. The combs, you see, only allow a maximum of 200 people inside at once, so a lengthy queue meanders, down the street and round the park, at all times. This seems like a bit of a nightmare, but it is actually, despite the wait, a thankful mercy for visitors. This is beacuse it alleviates the claustrophobic atmosphere and its addition, through omission, creates a hallowed, reverent quality that seems respectful in this place of interment.
But the history of the Paris Catacombs is actually the history of The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents in French) which was curiously named after the slaughter of infants by Herod when he attempt to take out the baby Jesus. The graveyard saw uninterrupted use from at least as far back as 1186 until its closure in 1780. It was an overcrowded slum for the dead.
“For eighth hundred years, day in, day out, corpses by the dozen had been carted here and tossed into long ditches, stacked bone upon bone for eight hundred years in the tombs and charnel houses.Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind 
This sacred churchyard saw around 1800 burials a year. From what I can gather it works like this: mass graves were dug in the middle and each new body covered with a bit of mud (but not much) until the entire pit was filled. The rich had their own graves along the outside. After an appropriate amount of time had passed (hopefully for decomposition) new graves were dug, the bones hauled out and housed in the charnal houses which lay around the walls of the cemetery.
The place was heaving with bodies and the stench was toxic.
In 1780, Louix XVI, or more likely his advisors, finally decided it was to be closed. At this point it is thought that over two million bodies were on site. The lynchpin event that spurred on this decisive action? A heavy rain storm that caused a hundred partially decomposed bodies to burst into the cellar of a nearby building, a restaurant in fact, and it was discovered when a man went to fetch more wine. Imagine a graveyard literally bursting at the seams.
Five year later, they excavated the bones and moved them to the catacombs where they rest to this day. There are other graveyards from central Paris housed here as well. You walk through the necropolis and it feels like a tour of the streets from the past.
“These city workers spend the next year digging human remains out of the cemetery’s deep mass graves and collecting the millions of bones that had accumulated in charnel houses around its perimeter. They then systematically transported carts full of humans and human remains to an underground quarry on the city’s southern peripheral.“Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780–1830. (Erin Marie Legacey, 2019)
Its current site has been used as a place of tourism almost from the beginning. In 1809 Héricart de Thury managed the project of bone arrangement – artistically taking advantage of the skulls that remained intact after their inglorious ‘tossing into the pit’.
As we race through the centuries, sometimes the site closed for decades, sometimes with visitor limits, sometimes without, until of course today, where the whole experience is carefully managed, and I suspect, a lot is not on display. When I went a few years back, entrance was significantly reduced if you could prove you were an EU citizen under 25. I think this is still possible, although the discounts aren’t as generous as they once were.
The route through the caverns is low roofed, slightly inclined and it swept circuitously. There was a small sign before we entered warning us that “the ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children and people of a nervous disposition”. I really didn’t know what to make of that sign. Surely, if you were of a nervous disposition you wouldn’t decide to visit the macabre site of the dead arranged like art, between doric columns, alters and tombs. Never the less, the sheer force of that many bones is disquieting. Thousands of thigh bones, piles of skulls – people decimated by plagues, childbirth, toothaches, bad food and dysentery. Mothers, children, husbands and wives all washed up and on show. Is this a one of those dark-tourism site that is better left unvisited? Or are graves no longer graves when we can’t remember to whom they belong?