Catacombs are not particular to Paris, others can be found in Spain, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and others around the world. But the Parisian catacombs are certainly the most well known.
The catacombs were originally just limestone mines, carved in the Parisian country side and under the city. This started in the first century AD with the Gallo-Romans building Lutetia (now Paris). Later, after the Franks took over, they built the Louvre, Notre Dame, city ramparts, and other pieces of Paris with the limestone.
In the late 1700s, cemeteries were overflowing with people in the city. They were running out of space, but let the problem go on for awhile. After a particularly bad period of bad rains, bodies from the cemeteries rose out of the ground and flowed into town. This caused widespread public health problems and smelled horrendous. Perfume shops complained that they were unable to sell their products because nothing could get rid of the smell. This prompted officials to begin closing cemeteries in Paris. The first to close was the Cemetery of the Innocents in 1786. Over the course of 15 months, millions of bodies were relocated to the empty mines, which had been causing infrastructure problems. What better way to put them to use than to store remains in them? Now, there are over seven million bodily remains in the catacombs.
The French continued to bury new dead in the catacombs during the French Revolution, but the practice ceased after 1860. Many people killed by guillotine rest down there, Maximilien Robespierre among them. After the French Revolution, there were efforts made to make the remains look nicer. People were sent down to put the bones into patterns and shapes like hearts and X’s. It is said that the catacombs created an equality below ground that could never be attained above it, even in the Revolution.
There are a lot of conflicting stories on whether or not people have died as a result of getting lost in the catacombs, but one man in particular whom we know for sure died down there has been memorialized. His name was Philibert Aspairt— he went looking for where alcohol was stored in the catacombs in 1793, and died 10ft from an exit with a liquor bottle in his hand after getting lost. He is entombed in the catacombs as a precautionary tale, and sort of hero.
During WWII, French Resistance fighters used catacombs as hide outs. Meanwhile, likely not all that far away, Germans were building bunkers for the Nazis. Besides war hide outs, the catacombs have also served as a space for bars, movie screenings, art, and concerts, and still do to this day, thanks to Cataphile culture.
Cataphile culture is fascinating, and certainly not for the faint of heart. They are a group of (unorganized) people who know the catacombs well, and go exploring through them at nights. Some are willing to lead outsiders down, but many are aggressive towards anyone who asks (often online) to be guided or let in. People find out through friends of friends of friends. They laugh in the face of a $75 fine for getting caught in the catacombs— there are only about five officers assigned to patrol the hundreds of miles of catacombs at night.
Cataphiles explore the catacombs, squeezing through cave-like features and tunnels in order to get to secret rooms and pools. The underground pools in the catacombs are bright blue.
Some of the most iconic photographs that we have of the catacombs actually come from a 19th and 20th century photography, Nadar (pseudonym for Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). He was a prolific photographer of Paris’ underground— photographing everything from Paris’ sewers to the catacombs. Throughout his life, Nadar was fixated on death. He believed that photography was meant to deal with death and mourning— he made images not only because they look nice, but also as a tool and means of healing, understanding, and coping.
His photographs often focus on the symmetry and patterns of the bones in the catacombs. He was inspired by the anonymity the catacombs provided, and often took advantage of that in his work. He was also very conscious of scale. He knew that in his time, not everyone would be able to experience the Catacombs, so he wanted to be sure to represent them in an impactful way. Since he couldn’t use people in his images due to lengthy exposure times, he used mannequins in their place. The mannequins helped provide a sense of scale for all his images. They also provide a nod at the boundaries of life and death. They appear as though they are something living, but they are not, and they are placed among the dead. It makes the images very creepy once you realize they’re mannequins, but if you didn't know and didn't think too hard about it, they do look quite like humans. I was convinced, before I read about his process. Employing mannequins gives the images a life, but in an uncanny and disturbing way.
Based on my readings, despite Nadar’s clear fixation on death, there was no evidence as to why he was this way. Did he suffer a crushing loss as a child? As an adult? Or something else entirely? He was constantly aware of the transitory nature of life in his own and through is photographs, but why? Perhaps experiencing the catacombs would provide some of these answers.
In visiting the catacombs, be sure to keep in mind the anthropological and artistic history of the space. Perhaps in going, you’ll be able to gain a new understanding of Paris’ history, and why Nadar was so obsessed with the space.