top of page
  • Kim

The Catacombs of Paris - The Tunnels Under Paris

What Does It Mean?

Catacomb is defined as “an underground cemetery consisting of a subterranean gallery with recesses for tombs, as constructed by the ancient Romans”.

However, “Originally, the word ‘catacomb’ referred to a specific set of underground tombs in Rome, under the Basilica of Saint Sebastian, where the apostles Peter and Paul were believed to have been laid to rest.”

Who created the Paris Catacombs?

•Around the 12th century, a network of tunnels spanning 11,000 square meters were unintentionally created for quarrying limestone.

•Many structures were built by Limestone at the time.

•Tunnels were unstable.

•In the 1700s the tunnels were reinforced and repurposed to prevent the cave-ins.

Why did these tunnels turn into catacombs?

•Christianity had changed the idea of proper burial by the 14th century.

•Buried on consecrated ground had become very popular.

•Bubonic plague contributed to an astounding number of deaths but there was no room left in the cemeteries.

•Les Innocents couldn’t keep up with the demand for burial space.

•B ones couldn’t be removed fast enough to accommodate enough burial spaces.

•Those living near the city's oldest and largest cemetery (Les Innocents) were among the first to complain due to strong stench of decomposing flesh.

Looking For A Solution

•In 1763, Louis XV attempted to ban all burials inside the capital, but faced pushbacks from the church.

•King Louis XVI was attempting to combat the issue of the collapsing tunnels.

•In 1777, the king created the General Inspectorate of Paris Quarries or known as the IGC

•The IGC were originally tasked to stabilize and monitor the underground tunnels,

•As Louis XVI, attempted to continue the crusade to move all cemeteries outside of Paris like Louis XV, he also faced push backs from the church.

The Solution

•In 1780 a prolonged period of spring rain and a series of mass burials caused a wall around Les Innocents cemetery to collapse into an adjacent basement.

•This led to a change in the burial location of millions of Parisians.

•In response to the increased complaint the city of Paris decided to bring bodies out of the city.

•They chose an abandoned quarry in Montrouge, a small town just outside of the capital.

•In 1785, during night fall the city was moving the graves out of Les Innocents Cemetery, which was an old and long-closed cemetery in the center of Paris. The graves were moved during the night to avoid upsetting Parisians.

•As the cemeteries were failing to keep up with the demand for burial space, Louis XVI ordered the IGC to move skeletal remains down to the tunnels, five stories underground into Paris' former quarries.

Paris Municipal Ossuary

•In 1786 a portion of the tunnels became consecrated (having been made or declared sacred by the church), and over time more remains were buried there.

•The site was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” on April 7, 1786, and, from that time forward, took on the mythical name of “Catacombs”, in reference to the Roman catacombs, which had fascinated the public since their discovery.

•Starting in 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment.

•Ossuary: a place or receptacle for the bones of the dead and it could be any site made to serve as the final resting place. The body is first buried in a temporary grave, after a few years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary.

Emptying the Cemeteries

Cemeteries began to be emptied, beginning with Les Innocent.

A number of notable people buried in those cemeteries likely had their bones transferred to the Catacombs .

The list includes:

•Jean de La Fontaine, writer, (Fables),

•Charles Perrault, writer, (known for fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots)

•Simon Vouet, painter

It took the city 12 years to move all the bones!

•6-7 million Parisians' bones came from different cemeteries to their final resting place in the citys Catacombs.

•Some of the oldest bones date back as far as the Merovingian Era, more than 1,200 years ago.

•During the Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs.

•Guillotine victims ended up there, too, I will mention them below:

•including the likes of Maximilien Robespierre - an influential figure during both the Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror, Antoine Lavoisier, and Georges Danton, all beheaded in 1794.

•Some other famous (or infamous) characters from history who call the catacombs their final resting place include Jean-Paul Marat, one of the Revolution's most radical voices, and Maximilien de Robespierre, an influential figure during both the Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror.

•In 1840, Napoleon III, together with the famous city planner Baron Haussmann, decided to give Paris a new look. However, The large-scale renovations meant moving more graves into the Catacombs.

•The city stopped moving bones into the ossuaries in 1860.

Catacombs Today

•Today, the catacombs of Paris, are still standing.

•Only a little more than a mile of the catacombs is open for visitors to explore.

•There are 131 steps to go down and 112 steps to climb up because you enter and exist from a different locations. the catacombs are about 20 meters deep, which is about a 5-story building.

•As you enter the Catacombs, you will walk under a doorway with inscription above: "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" (Stop! This is the empire of death!).

•Inside the ossuary, bones are grouped by the cemeteries that they came from. Some are neatly stacked along the corridors; others arranged in patterns, creating crosses and other images.

•One of the more famous structures is called the “Barrel”.

•Inside the Catacombs, the average temperature is 14°C (57.2° F), and it can be very humid.

•It takes about 45 minutes to walk through the catacombs section open to visitors.

•For more information, please visit the official website of the Paris Catacombs:

•The tunnels extend many more miles under the city, but it's illegal to visit most areas.

•It is said that the main reason it is illegal to visit other areas is due to the instability of the tunnels.

There are a lot of fascinating stories about what went on in the other parts of these tunnels. To learn more, I highly recommend watching History Channel’s:

Inside the Deadly Catacombs of Paris | Cities of the Underworld (S1, E5) | Full Episode | History

These underground tunnels were also used for:

•People from the noble families held underground picnics and parties

•Some walls of the catacombs are covered in graffiti dating back to the 18th century

•In the 19th century, several people lived within the catacombs. In fact, a group of communards killed some monarchists in one of the chambers in 1871.

•The tunnels were also used by the Nazis and the French resistance at different times during the Second World War.


Official Catacombs of Paris Website

The Catacombs of Paris; As seen through an Anthropological Lens

Transforming Catacombs and the City of Paris: The Spatial Relationship Between the Home for the Living and the Dead

Beneath Paris’ City Streets, There’s an Empire of Death Waiting for Tourists

Paris' Les Innocents Cemetery

Spending Time Among the Bones of Paris's Catacombs

Top 10 Scary Facts about the Catacombs in Paris

The Catacombs of Paris

Most Bone-Chilling Paris Catacombs Legends and Myths


bottom of page