Inlakech – August 11th, 2022
THE MESSED UP TRUTH ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS
There are a lot of famous places in Paris, but the creepiest might just be the catacombs that stretch for miles and miles beneath the city. It’s almost difficult to even wrap your head around it: All the time you’re visiting cafes, eating pastries, and sipping coffee, looking up at the brilliant Parisian architecture and enjoying the hustle and bustle of the streets, you’re walking above the remains of many, many people.
The pictures are stunning: piles of bones and skulls arranged in eerie formations that look like someone with a super-sick sense of humor was trying their hand at creating modern art. There are so many bones that it’s difficult to put them into perspective: Each one belonged to a living, breathing human being, with family and loved ones, hopes and dreams, and probably more than a few fears. You know, people not unlike yourself.
The Paris Catacombs are a strange, unsettling place that’s worth taking a closer look at … while remembering that the people buried there probably weren’t too different from you.
WHY CREATE THE PARIS CATACOMBS IN THE FIRST PLACE?
City planning is a tough thing, and in some cases, cities grew before any planning really happened. That was the case with Paris, and by the 17th century, the Parisians realized they had a huge problem on their hands: the dead.
Les Innocents was the city’s oldest cemetery, and it was also one of the biggest. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the neighborhoods around this cemetery were the first to raise some major complaints: The smell of decomposing bodies was so strong that even local perfumers couldn’t do business. It was unspeakably bad — the curator of the Catacombs, Sylvie Robin, described it like this (via The Journal): “It was said that the wine was turning bad and the milk was curdling.”
In 1763, Louis XV outlawed burials within the city, but there was still the question of what to do with all the people who had already been buried there. A particularly wet spring in 1780 caused retaining walls to collapse around Les Innocents, and suddenly, the bodies that everyone was smelling were spilling into the surrounding properties. The solution? Turn the maze of tunnels beneath Paris — mostly former quarries — into burial chambers.
THERE ARE MORE BONES IN THE PARIS CATACOMBS THAN YOU MIGHT THINK
It’s almost impossible to appreciate the scale of the Paris Catacombs, in part because most of the pictures you see only show a very small part of what’s there. The bones — which, Mental Floss says, occupy a space beneath the sewers and the metro, about 65 feet underground — are the remains of somewhere between six and seven million people. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same as the entire population of Massachusetts (via Statistia).
If it doesn’t look like there are that many people there from the photos alone, that’s because what you’re seeing is a facade made of bones.