The Catacombs of Paris (French: Catacombes de Paris, pronunciation) are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people.[2] Built to consolidate Paris's ancient stone quarries, they extend south from the Barrière d'Enfer ("Gate of Hell") former city gate; the ossuary was created as part of the effort to eliminate the effects of the city's overflowing cemeteries. Preparation work began shortly after a 1774 series of basement wall collapses around the Holy Innocents' Cemetery added a sense of urgency to the cemetery-eliminating measure, and from 1786, nightly processions of covered wagons transferred remains from most of Paris's cemeteries to a mine shaft opened near the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire. [fr]

Catacombs of Paris
Catacombes de Paris
Crypt of the Sepulchral Lamp in the Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris is located in Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Location within Paris
LocationPlace Denfert-Rochereau, 75014 Paris, France
Coordinates48°50′02″N 2°19′56″E / 48.83389°N 2.33222°E / 48.83389; 2.33222
TypeHistoric site
CollectionsParis's former stone quarries, ossuary contents of Paris's pre-18th-century intra muros cemeteries
Visitors480,000 (2018)[1]
Public transit accessDenfert-Rochereau
Paris MétroParis Métro Line 4 Paris Métro Line 6

The ossuary remained largely forgotten until it became a novelty-place for concerts and other private events in the early 19th century; after further renovations and the construction of accesses around Place Denfert-Rochereau, it was opened to public visitation from 1874. Since 2013, the Catacombs have numbered among the fourteen City of Paris Museums managed by Paris Musées. Although the ossuary comprises only a small section of the underground mines of Paris, Parisians often refer to the entire tunnel network as the catacombs.



Paris's cemeteries

Les Innocents cemetery in 1550

Paris's earliest burial grounds were to the southern outskirts of the Roman-era Left Bank city. In ruins after the Western Roman Empire's 5th-century end and the ensuing Frankish invasions, Parisians eventually abandoned this settlement for the marshy Right Bank: from the 4th century, the first known settlement there was on higher ground around a Saint-Etienne church and burial ground (behind the present Hôtel de Ville), and urban expansion on the Right Bank began in earnest after other ecclesiastical landowners filled in the marshlands from the late 10th century. Thus, instead of burying its dead away from inhabited areas as usual, the Paris Right Bank settlement began with cemeteries near its centre.[3]

The most central of these cemeteries, a burial ground around the 5th-century Notre-Dame-des-Bois church, became the property of the Saint-Opportune parish after the original church was demolished by the 9th-century Norman invasions. When it became its own parish associated with the church of the "Saints Innocents" from 1130, this burial ground, filling the land between the present rue Saint-Denis, rue de la Ferronnerie, rue de la Lingerie and the rue Berger, had become the city's principal cemetery. By the end of the same century, Saints Innocents was neighbour to the principal Parisian marketplace Les Halles, and already filled to overflowing. To make room for more burials, the long-dead were exhumed and their bones packed into the roofs and walls of "charnier" galleries built inside the cemetery walls. By the end of the 18th century, the central burial ground was a two-metre-high (6.6 ft) mound of earth filled with centuries of Parisian dead, plus the remains from the Hôtel-Dieu hospital and the Morgue; other Parisian parishes had their own burial grounds, but the conditions in Saints Innocents were the worst.[4]

A series of ineffective decrees limiting the use of the cemetery did little to remedy the situation, and it was not until the late 18th century that it was decided to create three new large-scale suburban burial grounds on the outskirts of the city, and to condemn all existing parish cemeteries within city limits.[5]

The future ossuary: Paris's former mines

Map of former underground mine exploitations in Paris (1908)

Much of the Left Bank area rests upon rich Lutetian limestone deposits. This stone built much of the city, but it was extracted in suburban locations away from any habitation. Because of the post 12th-century haphazard mining technique of digging wells down to the deposit and extracting it horizontally until depletion, many of these (often illicit) mines were uncharted, and when depleted, often abandoned and forgotten. Paris had annexed its suburbs many times over the centuries, and by the 18th century many of its arrondissements (administrative districts) were or included previously mined territories.[6]

The undermined state of the Left Bank was known to architects as early 17th-century construction of the Val-de-Grâce hospital (most of its building expenses were due to its foundations), but a series of mine cave-ins beginning 1774 with the collapse of a house along the "rue d'Enfer" (near today's crossing of the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau and the boulevard Saint-Michel) caused King Louis XVI to name a commission to investigate the state of the Parisian underground. This resulted in the creation of the inspection Générale des Carrières (Inspection of Mines) service.[citation needed]

Ossuary creation


The need to eliminate Les Innocents gained urgency from May 31, 1780, when a basement wall in a property adjoining the cemetery collapsed under the weight of the mass grave behind it. The cemetery was closed to the public and all intra muros (Latin: "within the [city] walls"[7]) burials were forbidden after 1780. The problem of what to do with the remains crowding intra muros cemeteries was still unresolved.[citation needed]

Mine consolidations were still occurring and the underground around the site of the 1777 collapse[8] that had initiated the project had already become a series of stone and masonry inspection passageways that reinforced the streets above. The mine renovation and cemetery closures were both issues within the jurisdiction of the Police Prefect Police Lieutenant-General Alexandre Lenoir, who had been directly involved in the creation of a mine inspection service. Lenoir endorsed the idea of moving Parisian dead to the subterranean passageways that were renovated during 1782.[citation needed] After deciding to further renovate the "Tombe-Issoire" passageways for their future role as an underground sepulchre, the idea became law in late 1785.[citation needed]

A well within a walled property above one of the principal subterranean passageways was dug to receive Les Innocents' unearthed remains, and the property itself was transformed into a sort of museum for all the headstones, sculptures and other artifacts recuperated from the former cemetery. Beginning from an opening ceremony on 7 April the same year, the route between Les Innocents and the "clos de la Tombe-Issoire" became a nightly procession of black cloth-covered wagons carrying the millions of Parisian dead. It would take two years to empty the majority of Paris's cemeteries.[9]

Cemeteries whose remains were moved to the Catacombs include Saints-Innocents (the largest by far with about 2 million buried over 600 years of operation), Saint-Étienne-des-Grès[10][better source needed] (one of the oldest), Madeleine Cemetery, Errancis Cemetery (used for the victims of the French Revolution), and Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux.[11] By this way the skeletal remains of several notable victims of the French Revolution were transferred to the Catacombs, including (the date is the date of death):[12]

Renovation and ossuary decor

Wall made of bones

Catacombs in their first years were a disorganized bone repository, but Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service from 1810, had renovations done that would transform the caverns into a visitable mausoleum. In addition to directing the stacking of skulls and femurs into the patterns seen in the catacombs today he used the cemetery decorations he could find (formerly stored on the Tombe-Issoire property; many had disappeared after the 1789 Revolution) to complement the walls of bones. Also created was a room dedicated to the display of the various minerals found under Paris, and another showing various skeletal deformities found during the catacombs' creation and renovation. He also added monumental tablets and archways bearing ominous warning inscriptions, and added stone tablets bearing descriptions or other comments about the nature of the ossuary, and to ensure the safety of eventual visitors, it was walled from the rest of Paris's Left Bank's already-extensive tunnel network.[13]



During World War II, Parisian members of the French Resistance used the tunnel system and established the headquarters from where Colonel Rol-Tanguy led the insurrection for the liberation of Paris in June 1944. The Nazis established an underground bunker below Lycée Montaigne, a high school in the 6th arrondissement.[14][15]

During 2004, police discovered a fully equipped movie theater in an area of the catacombs underneath the Trocadéro. It was equipped with a giant cinema screen, seats for the audience, projection equipment, film reels of recent thrillers and film noir classics, a fully stocked bar, and a complete restaurant with tables and chairs. The group les UX took responsibility for the installation.[16]

The film As Above, So Below, released in 2014, was the first production that secured permission from the French government to film in the catacombs. They aimed to use no alterations to the environment with the exception of a piano and a car which were hauled into the catacombs and set on fire.[17]

During 2015, Airbnb paid €350,000 as part of a publicity stunt offering customers the chance to stay overnight in the Catacombs.[18]

In August 2017, thieves broke into a cellar from the catacombs and stole more than €250,000 of wine.[19]



Only one death has officially been confirmed in the Catacombs. In 1793, Philibert Aspairt, a door keeper for the Val-de-Grâce hospital, died in the catacombs. It is thought that he had lost his light source, and was left to die in the darkness. In 1804, 11 years later, his body was found, only a few metres away from a staircase that would have led to an exit. He was only identified by his hospital key ring, and the buttons on his jacket.[20]


Entrance to the Catacombs

As one visits the catacombs, a sign above reads Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort ("Stop! The empire of Death lies here").[21] The Catacombs of Paris became a curiosity for more privileged Parisians from their creation, an early visitor being the Count of Artois (later Charles X of France) in 1787. Public visits began after its renovation into a proper ossuary and the 1814–1815 war. First allowed only a few times a year with the permission of an authorized mines inspector, but later more frequently and permitted by any mine overseer, a flow of visitors degraded the ossuary to a point where the permission-only rule was restored from 1830, and the catacombs were closed completely from 1833 because of church opposition to exposing human remains to public display. Open again for four visits a year from 1850, public demand caused the government to allow monthly visits from 1867, bi-weekly visits on the first and third Saturday of each month from 1874 (with an extra opening for the November 1 toussaint holiday), and weekly visits during the 1878, 1889 (the most visitors yet that year) and 1900 World's Fair Expositions. Later they opened for regular daily visits. After an incident of vandalism, the Catacombs were closed to the public during September 2009 and reopened on 19 December of the same year.[22] The Catacombs were reopened to the public on June 16, 2020, with new rules and guidelines for visitors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.[23] Visitors are no longer required to wear masks.[24]

Disruption of surface structures

Plan of the visitable Catacombes, drawn by the IGC (Inspection Générale des Carrières) during 1858

Because the catacombs are directly under the Paris streets, large foundations cannot be built above them and cave-ins have destroyed buildings. For this reason, there are few tall buildings in this area.[25]

See also



  1. ^ admin, Ecrit par (2019-02-18). "La fréquentation des musées et lieux de patrimoine en France, en 2018 (18/02/2019)". Club Innovation & Culture CLIC France (in French). Archived from the original on 2020-11-25. Retrieved 2019-06-12.
  2. ^ "Catacombs A Timeless Journey". Les Catacombes de Paris [Catacombs of Paris]. Archived from the original on 2015-02-08. Retrieved 2015-01-05.
  3. ^ "Les Catacombes de Paris". Unveiling the Hidden Secrets of Les Catacombes de Paris.
  4. ^ "The Catacombs of Paris: Underneath the city of light lies a chamber of darkness and death - CityMetric". Archived from the original on 2018-08-24. Retrieved 2018-08-24.
  5. ^ Geiling, Natasha. "Beneath Paris' City Streets, There's an Empire of Death Waiting for Tourists". Archived from the original on 2018-08-24. Retrieved 2018-08-24.
  6. ^ "Weird Wednesday: The mines of Paris". Archived from the original on 2020-07-29.
  7. ^ "intra muros". Archived from the original on 2014-12-06. Retrieved 2015-01-06.
  8. ^ (in French) « Par commission du 27 April 1777, M. Guillaumot, architecte du Roi, fut nommé au poste de contrôleur et inspecteur général en chef des Carrières. Signe du destin, une nouvelle maison s'effondra le jour même dans les carrières de la rue d'Enfer ! » Histoire de l'IGC Archived 2018-10-05 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ "Paris Catacombs Visitor Information". Archived from the original on 2012-08-06. Retrieved 2011-02-25.
  10. ^ Dark Historical Sites: Image. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 4 October 2023.
  11. ^ "Plunge into the heart of the Catacombes de Paris - Paris tourist office". Archived from the original on 2015-08-27. Retrieved 2015-12-07.
  12. ^ Beyern, B., Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres, Le Cherche Midi, 2008, 377 p. ISBN 978-2749113500
  13. ^ "The Catacombs" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-09-22. Retrieved 2018-08-24.
  14. ^ Meltzer, Hannah (2016-12-10). "Hidden villages, spooky tunnels and clever monkeys: 10 things you didn't know about Paris". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2023-03-28.
  15. ^ "Catacombs of Paris – Fascinating and Scary at the Same Time". DocumentaryTube. 2021-06-29. Retrieved 2023-03-28.
  16. ^ "La Mexicaine De Perforation". Urban-Resources. 2004. Archived from the original on June 10, 2005. Retrieved August 23, 2004.
  17. ^ "Filming in the Paris Catacombs for As Above, So Below". Motion Picture Association. August 13, 2014. Archived from the original on December 3, 2022. Retrieved February 20, 2023.
  18. ^ "Paris catacombs: Airbnb stay in 'world's largest grave'". BBC News. October 15, 2015. Archived from the original on January 19, 2021. Retrieved January 22, 2021.
  19. ^ "Thieves bore into cellar from Paris catacombs to steal €250,000 of wine". the Guardian. August 30, 2017. Archived from the original on February 3, 2021. Retrieved January 22, 2021.
  20. ^ "Grave of Philibert Aspairt". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 2024-03-25.
  21. ^ References to the entryway sign:
    • BBC (2011). Revolutionary Paris: filthy cities. Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm). Event occurs at 39:47. OCLC 835887472 – via Films On Demand.
    • Steves, Rick (2004). Rick Steves' Europe: Highlights of Paris—Eiffel and Monet to crème brulée. Back Door Productions. Event occurs at 17:57. ISBN 1598800671. OCLC 122353902 – via Films On Demand.
  22. ^ "Paris catacombs Vandalized, closed for repair". 2009-09-22. Archived from the original on 2011-02-15. Retrieved 2011-02-09.
  23. ^ "Catacombs of Paris Is Now Open Post COVID-19 Lockdown". Headout Blog. 2020-07-16. Archived from the original on 2020-10-01. Retrieved 2020-08-25.
  24. ^ "Please read before your visit | Catacombes de Paris | Official website". Retrieved 2023-10-04.
  25. ^ Michaels, Sean (21 April 2011). "Unlocking the Mystery of Paris' Most Secret Underground Society (combined)". Archived from the original on 2018-08-25. Retrieved 2018-08-24.

Further reading