A Trip to France 1: Catacombs

by Brenda W. Clough

Paris catacombs

Instead of going to Helsinki to the World SF Convention this year we decided to go to France. I am writing some novels which take place to some extent there, and my husband has never been. So when IcelandAir offered a fantabulous low fare to Paris, we had to go!

Paris is like all great cities. You cannot do everything unless you move there and reside for a couple years. So we did only a couple or three things: the Louvre, Pere Lachaise Cemetery (for the book, you’ll see!) and, just for fun, the Catacombs of Paris. We took a guided tour, which got us past some locked gates and into some fascinating corners.

The original Catacombs, in Rome, date back to the first or second century AD. The Paris catacombs are much more recent, and result from the fact that much of the Left Bank is erected upon a substrate of good solid limestone. This is a wonderful building material, and the Parisians quarried it for years, building cathedrals and other useful tructures. Thus the foundation of Paris resembles Swiss cheese, and by the 17th or 18th century buildings would occasionally collapse into craters. The king of France, recognizing a problem, decreed that the hundreds of miles of tunnels be mapped, and then shored up.

Meanwhile, the churches of the city had been burying the deceased for years. When only the bones were left, they were removed to ossuaries, so that the ground could be reused for more burials. Do this enough, and church basements are full of bones; there were sanitary issues revolving around the overfull cemeteries and the neighbors got testy.

Paris catacombs

Some brilliant out-of-the box thinker finally put the two halves of the problem together. There are tunnels under Paris; bones need to be underground. Et voila, the Catacombs were created in the reign of Louis XVI. Wagonloads of bones were carted from overflowing churches to the excavations, and the bones were neatly stacked up in space-saving configurations, something like rock walls. What these pictures show is the Tobias, endwise on, which make for reasonably stable walls; the skulls are entirely decorative, and very charming. Behind the solid facade of stacked tibia are all the oddball bones, the vertebrae and pelvises and so forth. Each wall of bones goes back at least six feet. There are millions of persons’ bones stored here. The tunnels go on for miles. Many people, having gotten lost in the dark, have died there. Only recently some daring French teens were lost there for several days, and had to be tracked by dogs to be rescued.

This is what really old, really great cities do. Stuff gets repurposed, done up differently to meet the needs of the current inhabitants. Cities are inventive; the recycling of cities, is fantastically inventive.

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A Trip to France 1: Catacombs — 4 Comments

  1. I need to find a book on the catacombs. I think Alfreda visits at some point–I put a fledgling necromancer in her school. 🙂

    Thanks for the report!

  2. One of the many fascinating things about the full version of Les Miserables is Hugo’s detailed views of aspects of life in Paris in the 1830s, which includes a chase through the catacombs.

    Really cool photos.

  3. Forgot to add that the -top- photo in this post is a vista of the port of Minorca. It was carved by a former sailor over his lunch breaks — it took 5 years. What did him in, was he was trying to set up his own private little catacomb attraction. An for this he neeed his own private entrance. While he was digging out the tunnel, it fell in on him and he died.