Since bone decays far more slowly than other human tissues, obtaining burial space in densely populated areas eventually becomes problematic. Historically in European cultures, individuals of high standing were buried within the church, others nearby outside. Those plots, however, were only rented, sometimes for a little as 20 years. After that, making space in the boneyard for the newly deceased necessitated removal of old skeletons. So the old bones were exhumed, sorted, stacked, and stored compactly in underground crypts or catacombs.
The largest one by far is in under Paris, where the bones of an estimated six million bodies are stashed in an extensive network of tunnels and chambers. Much of the city is built from the limestone blocks that were quarried from here. The passageways and rooms remained empty until the late 1700’s when cemetery storage of old bones rose to a crisis level.
Once the plans were made, it took over two years for a nightly procession of wagons to discretely deliver the bony remains from Paris’s cemeteries. This included at least two million skeletons from a single cemetery, one that had been in use for 600 years. Along the quarry’s corridors, the workers stacked thigh bones and skulls into retaining walls, behind which the other bones were unceremoniously tossed. To add a semblance of order, the workers placed marble plaques identifying the cemetery from which any given jumble of bones had originated.
Over the following centuries the Paris Catacombs have proven to be an enduring attraction. At first curiosity seekers, mostly royalty, were allowed to pop down only on several days a year. Now it is one of Paris’s most popular tourist magnets and is open 63 hours a week (closed on Christmas). Buying one of the limited number of advance-purchase tickets on-line may cut a typical two-hour wait in half. Once through the door, a staircase spirals down about six stories, and then the dimly lit tunnel meanders for approximately a mile. The floor and low ceiling are formed from calcium carbonate—limestone. The walls are calcium phosphate—skeletons.
The bones in the Paris Catacombs have little scientific value since they are jumbled, which makes it impossible to observe any trends regarding any individual’s state of health, nutrition, life span, or cause of death. Rather, the experience is a history lesson–a unique, strange, unforgettable, yet not-particularly-creepy (at least for me) window on Paris’s past.
A visit also provides insight into human nature. Tens of thousands of tourists annually descend into the earth to glimpse their own mortality. Forty-five minutes later and several blocks away from the entry, they spiral back up into sunlight. What awaits them? The Paris Catacombs gift shop.
Other old cities had similar bone storage problems but managed them differently. Rather than just stacking old bones, some churches began displaying the bones artfully. In Hallstatt, Austria, for instance, 1200 skulls are displayed on shelves. Sorted by family, half of them are painted with the owners’ names along with birth and death dates.
Other churches began using the bones as interior decorative elements. These “bone churches” exist in England, Spain, Poland, Czech Republic and at least three cities in Italy. I visited one in the lovely medieval town of Evora, Portugal, which is about 90 miles east of Lisbon.
In 16th Century Evora, the Franciscan monks confronted two problems. Storage space for old bones was in short supply. Also, the parishioners were living the high life because gold was pouring in from Brazil, then a Portuguese colony. In order to make a statement regarding the transient glories of worldly existence, the monks collected at least 5000 skeletons from local church yards and crypts and used them to decorate the vertical surfaces of a chapel. In case a parishioner might miss the point, the inscription in marble over the entryway translates as, “Our bones that are here await yours.”
Inside, all the walls are surfaced with bones. In some areas, arm and leg bones are pressed into plaster so that the length of each is visible. In other areas, the bones are viewed end on. Skulls liberally punctuate the geometric wall patterns and also define the edges of the columns and arches.
Overall there is a symmetrical and repeated contrast of dark and light. Strange as it may seem, I found it starkly beautiful. My wife, however, said she would wait outside while I finished taking pictures.
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12 thoughts on “Walking past six million skeletons in 45 minutes.”
I always wondered what it would be like to see these catacombs, but didn’t figure I’d want to go into the depths to see them. I have yet to see skeletons displayed that way in churches, but will keep an eye. That’s a bit creepy. At least that catacombs could be like a crypt.
I love this story. I have been in the Paris catacombs. Truly creepy. Part of the story is that because of the numerous tunnels under Paris and the gradual seepage through the old cobblestone pavements, at the end of the 18th century sinkholes were suddenly opening up in Paris streets. At the same time there was a need for more land for the expanding city. One prime piece of real estate was the mass grave outside of Paris where people of no means or property were buried. So the removal of the bones served two purposes — to free up the land for development, and to prop up the streets of Paris by reinforcing the tunnels with these massive walls of bones stacked flat one on top of another. The workers decorated the walls with skulls. Signs marked what street was above. In the 1960s the numerous labyrinthian tunnels of the catacombs beneath Paris were not gated. But then young people started going down there and getting stoned, and some got lost, and disappeared never to be found. So then the city gated off many of the tunnels limiting access to official tours only. Today it is visited primarily by tourists. If you linger and stray from the group it is still very creepy.
Yep. I dropped baguette crumbs to ensure that I could find my way out. Recently, officials found an entire movie theater with screen and sound system in a remote part of the catacombs. I wonder what genre of films the cavers had been showing. Roy
So interesting! Thank you for posting.
It is interesting how our forebears who much saw death more frequently and up close were much more accepting of their own mortality, and less squeamish in the presence of human remains.
Unless one is in the military or lives in a war zone, the only civilians in western society who deal with death with any frequency are health care providers, morticians and first responders..
Yep, pretty sanitized these days. Far different than granny dying at home and burying her out back in the family plot. The Baby Boomers are perhaps the greatest “age deniers” of all time. We’ll see how that plays out. Or at least I hope to see how it plays out while continuing to deny my own mortality. Tempus fugit. Roy
Wow. Adding that church to my list of places to visit.
Hi Emily, Evora, Portugal is a World Heritage Site in its own right even without the Bone Chapel, so it is definitely worth a day. Google “bone chapel” to find others if you run out of places to visit. Best wishes, Roy
Roy — I wasn’t aware of the story behind the Paris catacombs and would have visited them on one of my trips to this beautiful city. I find “bone churches” creepy and, like your wife, I think I’ll skip those on my travels!
Thanks for commenting. I don’t profess a grip on French, but the expression à chacun son goût comes to mind: to each his own. Best wishes, Roy
Many thanks for this. In 2016, while on pilgrimage in Italy I was fortunate to visit a ‘bone church ‘ for the first time— the Capuchin Crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini near Piazza Barberini in Rome.
It is a work of art, an amazing tribute to the friars and certainly invokes awe, wonder, and a gamut of emotions .
Truly a ‘hidden gem’ of the capital city.
Thanks Roy, Fascinating as usual. Paul Docktor