The Paris catacombs are ancient passageways underneath the city. These passages traverse the underground terrain beneath many cities, and throughout the history of Paris they have served a variety of purposes, including burial grounds, safety and refuge during wars and persecution, and even places of worship for various cults. The catacombs in Paris were established in the late 1700s in response to complaints of many inhabitants of the district encompassing the Saints Innocents Cemetery catching diseases. Today, these burial grounds continue to be a place of curiosity among many visitors from all over the world, and the Paris Catacomb tour is among the most popular attractions in the city.
In its early years, Paris buried its dead in church cemeteries; however, with the rapid population growth, the expanding city limits, and the increasing inability of the poor to pay for casket funerals, another method of burial took over: mass burials, in which the bodies were stacked into one excavation, and the caskets were reused for other funerals. Since bacteria from the decomposing bodies were able to seep directly into the ground water, this practice led to the contamination of local wells, which were then the principal source of drinking water. Because of several reports of infection, the bodies and cemeteries were removed and transported to an underground system of caves.
These ancient burial caves began in 1786, with ceremonial removal of the bones from the cemetery of the Innocents. A procession of priests, singing solemn burial hymns, led the carts laden with bones and black veils; the transfer of the bones was completed in 1788. Walking through the system of the Catacombs of Paris Museum, visitors will see walls lined with skulls and bones of ancient citizens of Paris. They are arranged into pillars and patterns of different shapes and sizes, giving these ancient burial grounds an air of exquisite solitude.
Since their creation, the Paris Catacombs have been a novel attraction, beginning with Lord d’Artois, later to become King Charles X, who visited began the Paris Catacomb tour accompanied by ladies of court. Other renowned visitors include Madam de Polignac, Madam de Guiche, Francois I (Emperor of Austria), and Napoleon III along with his son. Visitors of today will find improvements in lighting, architecture, and the quality of the bone installation, ensuring that this site is open for years to come.
The Paris Catacombs network of tunnels is quite vast and intricate; however, the actual burial grounds constitute only a small section of the museum. Upon entry, visitors are greeted by a sculpture even more ancient than the Catacombs of Paris Museum, a model of the French Port-Mahon fortress, which was created by an inspector when the quarry was still in existence. During renovations, the beautification of the catacombs took place, using tombstones, cemetery sculptures, and the existing bones. Each chamber housing the bones of the dead is set up in beautiful patterns, from hearts to pillars.
The Catacombs of Paris Museum is located in the 14th arrondissement, near the Montparnasse neighborhood, and is well worth a visit during any trip to the city. One of the most intriguing attractions to include on the list of things to do in the City of Light, a Paris Catacomb tour will help illuminate the history of Paris. While touring the Champs Elysees and the Eiffel Tower, be sure to step into the underworld, the Empire of Death as an inscription in the catacombs calls it, whose halls were graced by the presence of many throughout history and into the present day.