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The Catacombs of Paris, underground ossuaries in Paris, France, house the remains of over six million people within a small section of the ancient mines of Paris tunnel network. Situated south of the former city gate “Barrière d’Enfer” under Rue de l’Homme, the ossuary emerged due to two simultaneous problems faced by city officials in the 18th century: a series of cave-ins beginning in 1774 and overflowing cemeteries, particularly Saints Innocents. From 1786 to 1788, nightly processions of bones transferred remains from cemeteries to the reinforced tunnels, with more remains added over the years. The underground cemetery, now a popular tourist attraction, has been open to the public regularly since 1874, with surface access at Place Denfert-Rochereau. The catacombs are managed by Paris Musées as of January 1, 2013, and are formally known as “l’Ossuaire Municipal,” often referred to as the world’s largest grave.



The earliest burial grounds in Paris were on the southern outskirts of the Roman-era Left Bank city. After the Roman Empire’s fall and Frankish invasions, Parisians moved to the Right Bank, establishing settlements and burial grounds. The most central cemetery, around the 5th-century Notre-Dame-des-Bois church, became the principal burial site by the 12th century, associated with the Church of the Saints Innocents. The cemetery, located near the bustling Les Halles marketplace, soon overflowed. To create more burial space, the long-dead were exhumed and their bones packed into charnel galleries. By the late 18th century, the cemetery was a two-meter-high mound of earth filled with centuries of remains.
Much of the Left Bank area sits on rich Lutetian limestone deposits, which were mined haphazardly from the 12th century onward. Many of these mines were uncharted, abandoned, and forgotten. By the 18th century, parts of Paris included these undermined territories, leading to frequent cave-ins. A major collapse in 1774 prompted King Louis XVI to establish a commission to inspect the mines, resulting in the creation of the “Inspection Générale des Carrières” (General Quarry Inspection Service).
The urgency to eliminate the Saints Innocents cemetery increased after a basement wall collapse in 1780 due to the weight of the mass grave. This led to the closure of the cemetery and a ban on intramural burials. Police Lieutenant General Alexandre Lenoir endorsed moving the dead to the subterranean passageways, leading to their renovation as an underground sepulcher. By late 1785, the idea became law, and the relocation of remains began with a well dug above the passageways to receive the unearthed remains. The property was transformed into a museum for headstones, sculptures, and other artifacts. From April 7, 1786, the transfer of millions of remains from Parisian cemeteries to the catacombs took two years.
In its early years, the catacombs were disorganized. Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, director of the Paris mine inspection service from 1810, organized the bones into the patterns seen today and decorated the ossuary with cemetery artifacts. He created rooms to display minerals found under Paris and skeletal deformities discovered during the catacombs’ creation. Monumental tablets and archways with inscriptions were added to warn and inform visitors.
Visits to the catacombs began with privileged Parisians, including the Count of Artois in 1787. Public visits commenced in 1814, initially allowed a few times a year with permission from a mine inspector. Later, visits increased in frequency, but degradation led to the reinstatement of the permission-only rule in 1830. The catacombs were closed from 1833 due to church opposition but reopened for limited visits in 1850. Public demand led to monthly visits from 1867, bi-weekly visits from 1874, and weekly visits during the World’s Fair expositions of 1878, 1889, and 1900. Eventually, regular daily visits were permitted.
During the 1788 riots, bodies were placed in the catacombs. Philibert Aspairt, a Val-de-Grâce hospital doorkeeper, was lost in the catacombs in 1793 and found 11 years later. In 1871, Communards killed monarchists in the catacombs. During World War II, the French Resistance used the tunnels, and the Nazis established an underground bunker below Lycée Montaigne. In 2004, police discovered a secret movie theater in the catacombs, complete with a giant screen, projection equipment, a bar, and a restaurant. The identity of those responsible remains unknown.
In 2014, Ghost Adventures presenter Zak Bagans explored the catacombs in a special episode. In 2015, Airbnb paid €350,000 for a publicity stunt offering customers an overnight stay in the catacombs.
While the catacombs provided space for burials, they posed challenges for building structures. Since the catacombs are directly under Paris streets, large foundations cannot be built, and cave-ins have destroyed buildings. As a result, there are few tall buildings in the area.
 The Catacombs of Paris, with their extensive network and historical significance, continue to intrigue visitors from around the world. Their creation solved significant public health issues of the 18th century and transformed abandoned mines into a unique historical site. Despite the challenges they pose to modern construction, the catacombs remain a fascinating and eerie testament to Paris’s past.
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