Realm of the dead: Paris Catacombs

I visited Paris in early 2017. I was going through a rough patch in my life and was looking for an escape to somewhere new; escape from a shitty ex, from a job that was giving me daily panic attacks, and from constant struggles with gender dysphoria. My mood was generally low, and I was fixated on books, TV shows, and music that was flooded with notions of death and nihilism. It seemed only logical to head straight to the darkest and deepest tourist attraction that the city has to offer – the Catacombs.

This subterranean network of tombs, tunnels, and caverns holds the remains of more than six million people. Extending south from the Barrière d’Enfer ( translating to “Gate of Hell”) former city gate, the catacombs were created as part of the effort to eliminate the city’s overflowing cemeteries, in particular the now defunct Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (“Holy Innocents Cemetery”).

Preparation work for the catacombs began after a series of cemetery basements collapsed with overflowing corpses.To make room for more burials, the dead were exhumed, and their bones packed into the roofs and walls of galleries built inside the cemetery walls. From 1786, nightly processions of covered wagons transferred remains from most of Paris’ cemeteries to a mine shaft opening near the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire. By the end of the 18th century, the central burial ground was a two-metre-high mound of earth filled with centuries of Parisian dead.

The ossuary remained largely forgotten until it became a novelty-place for concerts and other private events in the early 19th century; after further renovations and the construction of accesses around Place Denfert-Rochereau, it was open to public visitation from 1874. Because of course it was. Gotta love the 19th century’s obsession with all things dead and dying.

Venturing down into the dark, surrounded by neat lines of human skulls stacked to create tunnel walls, huge mounds, and ceremonial shapes, it was easy to forget the troubles of my own life and instead ponder how awful these cemeteries must have been, bursting with rotting bodies, unable to contain the tirade of death and destruction brought about by illness, poverty, and war.

Perhaps rather selfishly, there was some peace to be found spending a few hours in a realm where the dead outnumbered the living.  I hope you enjoy my pictures!

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