Reflections among 6 million dead in the Paris catacombs
Deep underneath the storefront windows and busy Parisian streets lies endless tunnels. Some of these tunnels are empty, some filled with graffiti art, and others are piled high with human bones. It’s no secret that these tunnels exist, but not many people know exactly what lies beneath the cobblestone streets.
Having seen pictures of the stocked human remains beforehand, I thought that my Paris catacombs experience was going to be slightly morose and morbid. I was actually surprised at how unaffected I was. If anything, wandering among millions of skulls and bones just made me realize how human I am. How human we all are, and how alike we are after death. Everything that defines us is stripped away and we are left with a pile of bones. You can’t tell one skull from the next. There are no facial features, no differentiation between the rich and the poor, no signs of wit or personalisty that the person possessed before their death. This is how we all end up.
It was a cathartic experience. Not one of sadness or mourning, just introspection. I realized that when we die, we can’t take material things with us. No computers, no designer purses, not even our bodies. It just reinforces the life that Chris and I are trying to live. Instead of collecting things, we’re collecting memories and experiences. Needless to say, our catacombs tour was quite the learning experience.
That’s enough philosophizing for now. Let’s get to some facts about the Paris catacombs.
Our GetYourGuide tour started at the Place Denfert-Rouchereau entrance. Aside from the long line of tourists, the building is quite unassuming. Luckily for us, we were able to skip the line and waltz right in. We entered and proceed down a long, dizzying spiral staircase where a grim sign greeted us, “Arrête! Cest ici l’empire de la mort, Stop! This is the empire of death.” Our advice is to bring a good pair of walking shoes as the one mile tour takes you through uneven pathways. If you’re claustrophobic this tour is probably not for you.
Officially known as l’Ossuaire Municipal, the catacombs came to life at the end of the 18th century. The graveyards at the time had become so overrun with the dead that disease was rapidly spreading throughout the town by the contaminated corpses. To ease the burden off of the cemeteries, remains would often be transported in horse drawn carriages under the cover of darkness to their final resting place.
There’s more than just bones in the catacombs. There’s actually 186 miles of tunnels that currently wind around under the city of Paris. While there is only one legal entry into the labyrinth, it’s been rumored that other openings have been found and sometimes lead to underground parties (pun intended). In fact, those that frequent these lairs are labeled “Cataphiles” and are known to host subterranean movie nights and dance parties. We even heard of modern and intricate art galleries that are hidden away. As enticing as catacombs raves sound, we must strongly advise against it. Unless you’re with someone who knows their way around, it’s incredibly easy to get lost (quite possibly forever) and if caught, you can receive a fine of up to 60 euros.
Want to know what I did find to be creepy? Some tourists like to steal bones from the catacombs. Like, it’s a normal occurrence. Who would do that? Someone who wants a skull for a paperweight, apparently. When we exited the catacombs there was already a pile of bones that had been confiscated from the visitors before us.
What about you? Is a tour among millions of human remains your kind of thing? Have you been on a catacombs tour before? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!
When GetYourGuide heard of our interest in the catacombs they offered to host us on their Skip the Line Paris Catacombs Tour. As with everything on this site, our opinions are our own. So there.
Also, the Captain found a great story about what it’s like to enter the catacombs with cataphiles. You can read it for yourself by clicking here.
17 thoughts on “Reflections among 6 million dead in the Paris catacombs”
Somehow I’ve never visited the Catacombs while in Paris, but I think I’ll have to see them next time. It looks like a completely different side of the city.
Also, good to know about the tour to skip the line, and amazing find on the story about the cataphiles! Crazy.
Oh yes! Skip the line tours are money well spent. It’s such a satisfying feeling to walk by the throngs of people lined up and waiting. Let us know when you make it to the catacombs. We’d love to hear your thoughts about it.
This is a great post – I especially love the point you made about it being an experience that makes you realise you can’t take anything with you and we’re all the same in the end. Definitely agree that it makes what we do (I travel long-term as well) so worthwhile because of all the memories we collect. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!
Thanks for stopping by! It was a very eye-opening experience. Totally not what I expected to feel.
We’ve got to put this on our list. I was pretty stunned to read people actually steal bones! I can’t even begin to imagine what a person might do with said bones?? Just goes to show there’s all kinds of kinds. Cheers guys!
A place in Paris I have never been to and have heard some great things about! Quite different to what I usually do. Great video btw 🙂
Fascinating…I didn’t know Paris had catacombs. We saw something similar underground at a monastery in Lima — all the bones. It does make you think!
isn’t it crazy how disrespectful people can be?! i was like you–i thought i would be seriously creeped out, but instead i just found it interesting and, like you said, introspective. but at the same time, there was a group of kids behind us screaming and yelling and laughing. how are you missing the point you’re walking through a mass grave?!
I have not been to the catacombs, although I know it would be fascinating! I am mortified that people would try to take the bones as a souvenir! Do they have no respect? I am sure there’s a gift shop that sells replicas for those who must have a skull paper weight, but seriously…these were once people! Wow.
I am with you guys on starting to collect more experiences than things! The only thing that will need dusting off when I am old and grey are the memories and stories from a life hopefully well lived!
LOVE this: “How human we all are, and how alike we are after death. Everything that defines us is stripped away and we are left with a pile of bones.” So true and insightful. I somehow missed this when I was in Paris a few years back. Guess I’ll have to go back soon. Can’t believe people steal bones…creepy.
When I checked the box to prove I am human, it also proved I am not a pile of bones yet. Looks like a cool tour with interesting history of Paris.
Paris is a great city with different sides. The catacombs are one side I have not seen yet. I have taken to the romantic and glam Paris, but I would be interested to check out the catacombs. There is such history there and the introspective attitude one takes while there sounds like a great experience. The cataphiles are another side of Paris that I have never seen. That underground culture sounds interesting, but a little scary too!
Catacombs is one of my favourite places in Paris (please don’t think I’m weird) – it’s so real and I love your opening to this post about how we are all the same at the end.
However I did find it a little creepy when I first entered it, but it is a little something different 😉
Haven’t been to the catacombs yet…next time. I can’t believe all the times I took teenagers there, they didn’t want to go…funny. Love the photos.
this is so cool! I’d love to see this
I never visited the catacombs, but I saw the church in Prague with the pyramids of bones and the chandelier with every bone in the human body. It’s pretty grim, yet incredible art. Next time I’m in Paris, I have a plan.
It’s a really unique experience. I would suggest to book a tour or to go very early, because the waiting line is too long. I went an hour before the opening time and there already were about 20 people waiting in front of the entrance. After an hour I wasn’t able to see the end of the line. 🙂