Adventures in Paris: empire of death

Ten years ago when I was in Paris with some friends, a group of them headed off to the Catacombs (or Catacombes, as the French call them).  It sounded interesting, but time was short and I wanted to catch some other sites before our trip was over.  This time around, though, having mentioned it to the boys, there was no way we could skip it!  Millions of bones and skulls have quite the draw for 6- and 7-year-old boys!

Stop!  This is the empire of death

Stop! This is the empire of death

Having heard that it was not accessible for strollers, and that the wait would be long, we decided to split up for this outing.  I took the bigger boys, leaving the little ones and Emily at home.  DEFINITELY the right choice.

When guide books say “it could be a 2-3 hour wait,” in this case, it’s absolutely true.  The city of Paris limits the number of people who can be in the Catacombs at any given time (for health and safety, I suppose), and so the trickle into the Catacombs is only as fast as the trickle out.  We arrived at Denfert-Rochereau Metro stop at 9:30am.  The line already wrapped around the square to the far side.  We cut right across the square, finding the end of the line and a paper posted to one of the trees noting a 3-hour wait from this point.

But we’d come prepared!  We had our mini-DVD player and a couple of movies—and no toddlers or 3-year-olds to worry about. So the boys settled onto the grass with their movie, and we began our wait.  Fortunately we’d brought snacks and water—those came in handy over the ensuing three hours.  When the movie wrapped up, the boys enjoyed watching underground RER trains come and go through the fenced off area in the middle of the square.

As we approached the front of the line, we asked our new friend ahead of us in line if he’d mind holding our spot while we ran across the street to the free public toilet—important, since there is no restroom inside the Catacombs.  Once we had our tickets and audioguides in hand, we headed through the turnstile down a long spiral stairway to the beginning of a series of underground tunnels and caves.

The Catacombs have an interesting history.  Originally, they were mining tunnels—used to quarry stone for use in the construction of Paris’ buildings.  Over time, the tunnels became a hazard—they were poorly looked after, and safety had been of little concern.  When some tunnels started caving in in the late 1700s (a risk to tunnel workers and the city dwellers above), the city took action, reinforcing the tunnels and establishing standards.  About the same time, there were some serious health problems occurring above ground, stemming from unsanitary conditions around some of the city’s cemeteries.  Someone had the idea to combine the two issues into one—remove the bones from the cemeteries and move them to the now-unused (but reinforced) tunnels under Paris.  Soon thereafter, piles of bones were being carted to and dumped into the tunnel openings.  Over time, the Parisians’ fascination/romanticizing of death grew, and work was undertaken to organize and decorate the Catacombs.  Quite the history!

Once we made it down to the catacomb level (19 meters below the street), there is a long stretch of boneless, dimly lit quarry tunnel.  If we hadn’t had the audioguide, this would have felt long and uninteresting.  Instead, this was the section in which the guide introduced us to the history of the Catacombs.  The narrative was informative and interesting, and while not specifically written for children, our boys liked it.  By the time we made it to the ossuary, the boys were ready for it.  BONES EVERYWHERE.  Stacked several 5-6 feet high and 5-10 feet deep nearly everywhere.  Skulls neatly placed amidst femurs to form designs.  Quotes about life and death carved into stone here and there.  It’s not brightly lit, but it’s appropriate for the setting, and there’s no risk of getting lost.

By the end of our 45 minutes inside, the boys were experiencing a little bit of creepiness—they were ready to leave.  But they definitely enjoyed it and were excited to tell their little brothers about it when we got home.

The Catacomb visit is one-way, so you exit (after ascending ~200 stairs) about half a mile from where you entered, at 36, rue Rémy Dumoncel.  The boys enjoyed the death- and skeleton-themed gift shop across from the exit, and then we headed to the nearest Metro stop to head back home.

Worth the wait?  Not if we were in Paris for only a week.  But being in Paris for longer than that—and being prepared with kid entertainment while in line—we were glad to have gone.  Plus, if it hadn’t been the peak of summer tourist season, the line would undoubtedly have been shorter.  Maybe still an hour, but far less than our wait.


Photo credit: Catacombes de Paris—Entrance by Passion Leica

5 replies
  1. Carol
    Carol says:

    There are many things I could do that others can’t — but this is not one of them. Makes me wonder what this place will look like as the resurrection takes place. It might be very busy! Did the emptied cemeteries get remade into parks or something, or did they simply build buildings on them?

    • Spencer
      Spencer says:

      The primary cemetery whose bones filled the catacombs was Cimetiere des Innocents. A portion of this cemetery became what is now Place Joachim du Bellay, just a stone’s throw from the enormous Les Halles mall/Metro stop. But much of it was simply built over with new buildings.

  2. Kelly Defaye
    Kelly Defaye says:

    When I was living there, I went with my sister and her friend during her Spring Break. There was no line at all. Definitely gave me the shivers when we got to the ossuary.


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