30 June 2010
Empire of the Dead under Paris.
There's a macabre underbelly to Paris that is rarely exposed. These are the ossuaries, or catacombs, a maze of subterranean tunnels 20m below the streets of the Left Bank's Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement.
Today they hold the bones of around six million Parisians transported to the catacombs when the old cemeteries were overwhelmed.It is not surprising. By the time the city fathers decided at the end of the 18th century that something had to be done about Paris' overflowing cemeteries, the dead were literally bursting from the earth.
The stench of shallow graves ruined milk and spoiled wine in casks, and in turn, created more corpses as disease spread.The answer was to remove the bodies and transport them in the dead of night, by covered wagons or horse-drawn hearse and accompanied by chanting priests, to the city of darkness.
Initially, the bones were thrown together until they filled the chambers; eventually, they were re-stacked in what the French call "romantic-macabre" order that we see today. The transfers stopped in 1860.
Public visits began in 1814, only to be discontinued briefly because of vandalism and people wandering off into the darkness.It's a problem that remains for, despite the danger and the fines, unofficial explorers – or ktaphiles – make unauthorised incursions into the subterranean network and post their feats on websites.
MORE Ossuaries throughout the world
These stunning examples of ossuaries remind us that life is fleeting, but some part of us can live on in this world.