When do human remains become art? I considered this question as I walked through the Paris Catacombs recently. It was the second time I had visited, so I knew what to expect, but the impact of so many bones, so many lives, was still strong.
The Paris Catacombs hold the remains of more than six million people, moved there to free up the overcrowded cemeteries above. Each section is labeled with the name of the cemetery that the bones were moved from.
While there are piles of bones in some places, most are concealed behind patterns of femurs and skulls, arranged in a form of macabre beauty down there in the dark.
The bones have even been turned into architecture in this pillar deep within the tunnels.
Book online in advance, although bookings don’t go live until a week or so before each date, so you need to be organized if you have a specific window to visit. I had a reminder in my calendar to book and still couldn’t get the exact slot I wanted.
The entrance is right next to the Denfert-Rochereau Metro. If you have time before and fancy some wonderful food, check out nearby Rue Daguerre which is a wonderful pedestrianized boulevard with lots of options and an outdoor market at weekends. It’s also close to Montparnasse Cemetery which is beautiful and peaceful.
This is not an accessible experience! There are spiral steps to go down, and then you walk through uneven corridors for a few kilometers, and then climb back up a spiral staircase to get out again. If you have mobility issues, or struggle with stairs, or don’t like underground tunnels, this is not for you! The exit is 21 Bis Av. René Coty, 75014 Paris, France. You can find it on Google Maps if you search for the Catacombs Shop.
Books that feature catacombs and ossuaries
- Crypt of Bone — J.F. Penn. Fast-paced thriller. Morgan and Jake race against time to stop a rogue billionaire from killing a quarter of the world. Features the Paris Catacombs, Sedlec Ossuary, and Palermo Ossuary.
- The Catacombs — Jeremy Bates. Horror novel about a serial killer who uses the catacombs under Paris as his hunting ground.
- Midnight Never Come — Marie Brennan. In hidden catacombs beneath London, a second Queen holds court: Invidiana, ruler of faerie England, and a dark mirror to the glory above.
- Catacomb — J.F. Penn. Walker Kane didn’t believe in monsters. Until they took his daughter.
- The Restorer — Amanda Stevens. Supernatural thriller series featuring a graveyard restorer exploring mausoleums and tombs.