“Something Cool” No. 3: The Paris Catacombs
April 6, 2017
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Paris: city of love, lights, and the decayed carcasses of millions of its own citizens.
If you ever find yourself wandering around the capital of France and are worried that the Eiffel Tower is too mainstream, consider venturing downward to the Paris Catacombs. Home to a number of bodies equal to roughly half of the city’s current population, these underground ossuaries may seem pleasant at first, but in reality tell a much darker story if only you dig a little deeper (pun definitely intended).
Like any good dead people story, ours today starts off rather innocuously – just a few bodies here and there. Subject to invasions from all over during the 4th and 5th centuries, the Parisians needed a place to bury their dead, opting for the marshy Right Bank. This worked fine for a while, as only so many people were actually available to die, but as more and more bit the bullet, expansions became necessary. No longer able to push in the opposite direction, the cemetery slowly began to creep into urban Paris beginning in around the year 900 and continued further inward from there, picking up the nickname “Saints Innocents” due to its close proximity to a major parish along the way.
Now, as you might imagine, the growing heap of dead bodies posed a few problems (apart from being a general eyesore), the main of which being that, on the scale of things that are clean and things that are unclean, rotting flesh tends to land closer to the latter. Growing complaints from shopkeepers that the lingering stench of death was having detrimental effects on business prompted another wave of efforts to deal with the dilemma on the part of Louis XV and XVI, none of which did the trick. Finally, in 1780, following a particularly rainy spring that caused many of the corpses to spill out from Saints Innocents onto the streets, it was decided that the bones should be stored throughout the many unused mines beneath the city. These came to be known as the Paris Catacombs.
Today, they are open for regular tours, and one woman even attempted surfing the underground waterways of the labyrinth in a bikini. So next time you’re in Paris for a casual excursion, take comfort at night knowing that you’re sleeping above the skeletons of thousand year-old cadavers stretching 100 miles in each direction.
This concludes the third installment of “Something Cool”. I’ll be taking a break from the regularly scheduled programming in two weeks as I will be away on a seriously cool school trip, but stay tuned for both an article about said trip and a new “Something Cool” coming soon.
If you have a topic you’d like me to research, or you have a suggestion for future installments, email me at [email protected]