The Catacombs of Paris, a City Built on Bones

catacombs
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Attracted by the title “The World’s 5 Creepiest Places,” we visited Amazing Facts and learned the identity of those five locations. They are:
♦ Mary King’s Close, sort of an underground dungeonesque city beneath the Royal Exchange. Looks like a good setting for a post-apocalyptic speculative fiction tale.
♦Chernobyl
♦The Manchac Swamp in Louisiana
♦Bran Castle, the supposed vampire’s home in Romania
♦the Catacombs of Paris, which pull in curious visitors all year round, not just at Halloween. Can you picture 185 miles of tubular underground boneyard? Says the seemingly nameless author:

Bones and skulls are stacked on either side of a narrow corridor like merchandise at a warehouse-a lot of merchandise. The air is close and cool, with just a hint of decomposition, and there’s rude graffiti dating from the French Revolution, mainly about the king and the feeble nobility.

National Geographic News offers a nifty little video of l’Ossuaire Municipal. These tunnels used to be quarries, and when the city’s many cemeteries became a serious health issue, somebody had the bright idea to fill up the one with the other. That must have been a public works project to rival the building of the pyramids! Full employment for all, but what a job, exhuming six million corpses and bundling up the bones for transport into the catacombs.

When exactly does a tunnel become a catacomb, anyway? Is it the presence of human remains that does the trick? And what was the methodology for cleaning the bones? It doesn’t seem biologically possible that they would have all been picked clean by nature. And how much grave robbing went on? Was it policed, or were the workers allowed to keep what they scavenged, as sort of an incentive package? Wondering about these matters, we consulted a few sources. The first being The Third Tower Up From the Road, where Kevin notes that the place “might suffice as a proxy for hell” and then goes on to say a whole lot more about it.

There’s also a lively account by a fellow named Jason, titled “Parisienne walkways. And big stacks-o-femurs,” that we found entertaining. And Lucky Larry passes along some solid advice for maximizing the experience, including the fact that touching the bones seems to be allowed, should you feel so inclined. He also confesses to not following orders:

After walking down 130 spiraling steps we lose the other 18 people in the group and ditch them, I think the catacombs should be viewed in some level of solitude so you can fully appreciate the experience – that means near silence and as few people as possible it also seems more respectful.

What we’d like to know is: Are the Paris catacombs the best in their class? Or would anyone recommend a superior ossuary?

photo courtesy of ricardo.martins, used under this Creative Commons license

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