The Paris Catacombs are located in the underground tunnels that were once part of the quarries from which stone was mined for Notre Dame and other major building projects during medieval times. The word catacomb, which is usually used in the plural form, is defined as an underground cemetery connected by tunnels. Today, the Catacombs form part of Paris tourism attractions.
The Paris Catacombs are actually an ossuary dating back to 1786. They occupy only a small part of the labyrinth of tunnels created by the earlier quarry excavations. Charles Avil Guillaumot, who spent half of his adult life reinforcing and consolidating the quarries is responsible for the idea of the ossuary.
In the late 1700s while Guillaumot was working on the project of reinforcing the quarries because a city street had collapsed. At this time, the Cemetery of Innocent Saints, located where Forum Les Halles now exists, was a burgeoning cemetery. Graves stacked upon graves since the fourth century pushed through the basement wall of a local restaurant, spilling their unsavory contents therein. What had begun as a cemetery with individual sepulchers had become a site for mass graves by the 1300s. However, with the Plague of 1418 approximately 50,000 bodies were added to the cemetery. Open pit graves were not closed until they were full. It was not only the collapsing basement wall that was creating a hygiene problem.
Louis XVI ordered the removal of the cemetery and it was Guillaumot who suggested the quarries as a location for the remains. He named it the Catacombs in memory of the Catacombs in Rome. Today you can still see Guillaumot’s mark in the catacombs…..look for carvings in the stone such as 25 G 1777. The letter G indicates that the architect responsible for this area was Guillaumot, 1777 was the year in which it was completed and 25 indicates that this was the 25th consolidation. You may also see a fleur de lys carved in the stone walls which indicates the approximate location of a church or convent at street level (the quarry alleys parallel the streets above).
Working at night while Parisians slept, it took 15 months to move all the bones from Innocent Saints to the Catacombs. Later, more bones would be moved as other cemeteries in Paris were closed. More than 6 million Parisians are in this ossuary including Rabelais, Mansart, Robspierre, Molière and Guillaumot who was buried in one of the cemeteries that was later closed so his bones were moved to the Catacombs. It is Guillaumot’s successor Hericart de Thury to whom we can attribute the organized arrangement of skulls and bones. Père Lachaise Cemetery is one of the 4 cemeteries created on the outer edges of Paris when cemeteries within the city were abolished in 1786. Its park-like atmosphere is a definite contrast to the atmosphere of the Catacombs.
The Location of the Catacombs
In the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris’ 14th arrondissement you will find the entrance to the Catacombs. Take the metro to the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop (Denfert-Rochereau was a Franco-Prussian war hero). This is also the location of a former city gate,Barrière d’Enfer literally Gate of Hell, where taxes were collected from those wishing to enter the city. The street rue d’Enfer is now part of rue St Michel (avenue Denfert-Rochereau becomes rue St Michel) and the square which was named Place d’Enfer is now named Place Denfert-Rouchereau.
I recommend a light jacket and flashlight when you visit the Paris Catacombs as the temperature is cave-like. Because this is an ossuary containing the bones of more than 6 million people, I would hesitate to take a young child here. Take the metro to Metro Stop Denfert-Rochereau. The entrance to the Paris Catacombs is located at 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau.