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Just for Halloween: The Catacombs of Paris

Just for Halloween: The Catacombs of Paris

Happy Halloween my friends!

In Paris, Halloween is well-known, but not well-celebrated. Save for a few parties and costumes, it is not the occasion that we Americans are used to.

There is no trick-or-tricking. The multitude of costume parties are few and far between. Costume shops sell scary costumes, almost exclusively. And restaurants and cafes serve lots of potiron (pumpkin) soup.

One thing that does fits into both the Parisian and American ideal of Halloween is a visit to the Catacombs.

Our macrabre visit started on a bright Saturday morning in September. It was everything we expected it to be - damp, dark and a bit creepy.

They only allow 200 visitors in at a time so we arrived early to make sure we were three of those spaces. Opening at 10:00am, they began to process the line, one-by-one. After a steady wait, we paid 10 euros each and made our way inside.

We descended into the catacombs by 130 winding steps. Steve, being 6'5", was hunched almost the whole way down. He also had to watch his head through most of the passages; lucky for me, there were only a few spots where I had duck down.

These tunnels started out as open quarries, supplying limestone that was used to build Notre Dame, the Louvre and more. Eventually, it was turned into an underground passageway that mimicked the city layout up above. The tunnels were eventually abandoned.


By the 17th century, Paris was a certifiable European hub. So many people had lived and died in the area that they were running out of places to bury the dead. That's right, the cemeteries were completely full and it was a serious problem. The stench and unhygienic conditions were starting to affect the businesses and citizens of Paris, most notably, those living in the Les Halles neighborhood near the Les Innocents cemetery.

In 1763, Louis XV pushed through a law that banned burials inside the city, but he didn't want to move or disturb any of those already laid to rest. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. In the spring of 1780, following an exceptionally rainy season, one of the Les Innocents walls collapsed causing the corpses to disturb neighboring properties.

Someone came up with idea for the bones to be moved to the tunnels and in 1786, the emptying of the cemeteries began. For 12 long years, 6 to 7 million bodies worth of bones were moved into the catacombs. They say the oldest bodies moved were from the Merovian era, some 1200 years prior. In the years since, many were buried directly into the ossuary. Around 1860, they finally stopped moving bones to the Catacombs for good.

The bones inside are organized by cemetery. When they first started to bring them in they were haphazardly thrown into their designated area. But in 1810, a man by the name of Hericart de Thury, had the femurs and skulls arranged in patterns to show these citizens of Paris more respect in their final resting place.

Today, 2 kilometers (about one mile) is open to the public to explore. Take a look at our excursion:

Roughly translated as "You are not invited to touch or smoke in the ossuary."

Roughly translated as "You are not invited to touch or smoke in the ossuary."

A heart of skulls in the Catacombs

A heart of skulls in the Catacombs

The "Google Translation" of the photo above didn't make a lot of sense, so I did some research for a more artful translation:

Thus ends everything on earth
Mind, Beauty, Grace, Talent,                           
Short-lived like a fleeting flower
Blown down by the slightest breeze.

After many winding passages and thousands upon thousands of bones, we finally emerged, happy for sunshine and the ability to stand up straight. There are many more miles underground, but its forbidden (i.e. illegal) to visit. Many people head down anyway to explore, throw parties and more.

Visiting the Catacombs gave us a little taste of Paris's long history and a peek into the underground city that's just as extensive as the one above.

Now we known the French aren’t known for their Halloween traditions, but, alas, we have been invited to a Halloween party tonight! Costumes are mandatory, and they prefer scary ones. In the next few hours, we’ll be trying to pull together something dark enough for a Parisian party. Any suggestions?

Enjoy the festivities wherever you may be!


Vocab for today:

  • le bonbon - candy
  • le désguisement - costume
  • le squellette - skeleton
  • la fete - party
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