“The World’s Largest Graveyard” – Catacombs of Paris

 

My third trip down into the tunnels of the Catacombs of Paris was no less macabre than my first visit. Seeing the stacked skulls and femurs of 6 million skeletons is always jaw-dropping. But since this was my third time, I did experience it a little differently.

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The first thing I noticed after waiting in line for over an hour (as usual) is that as soon as people enter the tunnels where the remains begin, they stop in a cluster and start to take pictures of the first group of skulls. It clogged up traffic and I chuckled to myself – you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. My friend took the obligatory pictures, too, and I said, “Just wait. Within 5 minutes you’re going to start being desensitized to it and walk right past them.”

Five minutes later, she did.

Walking through miles of tunnels of stacked skulls and femurs starts to seem surreal. First of all, where are the rest of the bones? I assume they’re thrown into all the tunnels that visitors don’t have access to because the catacombs stretches for many more miles than visitors are allowed to tour.

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Everyone who enters the catacombs tries to capture the vastness of it on film, but it’s impossible. Even when I could get pictures of a long section of tunnel, it doesn’t complete the picture of how many tunnels like this there are and how many we’d already wandered through.

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Or how many different artistic arrangements of skulls and bones there are.

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Or how many bodies 6 million skeletons really amounts to.

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I learned that the French Resistance used these tunnels during WWII. Oddly enough, so did the Nazis — another odd connection to the loss of 6 million lives. But the remains buried in the catacombs are those that were moved from Les Innocents’ overcrowded cemetery because there was no room in Paris to bury all their dead.

Why they dismembered the skeletons is unclear (to me). The catacombs were regarded as sacred ground and not allowed to visitors for decades because it was sacrilegious to let people see the remains of these people. Yet, breaking them apart to create visually appealing stacks of bones seems to have been okay?

 

It’s hard to make sense of any of it. It’s now one of Paris’ 14 City museums. It’s a place I definitely recommend any visitor to Paris see. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen in the world and is macabre no matter how many times you go.

Have you been there? Or is it a place you’d visit?

23 responses to ““The World’s Largest Graveyard” – Catacombs of Paris

  1. Eek! I think I’d have to skip this one, although the WWII history buff in me might force me to go just to check out the tunnel maze. I feel like the skull formations would give me nightmares.

    • I ashamedly admit that I felt desensitized toward the skulls themselves. It became more of an artistic medium, in a way. You know they’re skulls and bones, but you don’t connect them with actual people. Maybe because they’re so old and had been moved there?

  2. The catacombs are such a strange experience, I understand exactly what you mean – it’s something really unique though and the numbers of bodies buried down there is just astonishing!

  3. That’s amazing and strange. I’ve only been to Paris for short visits and never made it to the catacombs – now I’m not so sure I’d want to go down there.

  4. I haven’t been to the Paris Catacombs but I did visit the chapel of bones in Evora, Portugal, which is quite similar in looks but not quantity. I took a few photos and then our camera decided to die. I always wondered if there was a connection…. Curt

  5. 6 million?? That is one unimaginable number, let alone seeing it all at once! (Well, not exactly ALL at once but you know what I mean.) I actually think it’s creepier that the bones are stacked like that. It just feels like they’re trying to take the human aspect out of human bones, which then ends up creepier (to me at least).

    • You’re right in every regard. 6 million is unfathomable — even when you’re seeing it with your own eyes. And stacking the bones (only certain bones) artistically takes away the human aspect. That may be why it’s not upsetting to see. Plus, they weren’t killed. This is simply the remains of those that were already dead and buried.

  6. Wow, I had heard of these but had absolutely no idea what it was like. Three times and I’m sure you see something new every time that you go.
    I also am curious as to why things were so well organized, but it certainly is the best way to maximize space. Can you imagine being the persons that did this though? And what happened to the flesh. Eewww..things we shouldn’t think about.
    Awesome post!

    • Thanks!
      Like you, I tried to imagine who was responsible for stacking these and think that the different people had different styles. Strange, I know, but it seemed like certain areas had thie own unique style.

  7. Never heard of this Julie. I’d love to visit Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris (at least you get to know who’s there) but the catacombs? I’m not sure. Maybe I’d stick to the city’s other sights.

  8. I have been to Lima as well, but have avoided the Paris one so far. Seemed like a waste of time in Paris, but I think I shall give it a try on my next visit.

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