Catacombs of Paris

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The Catacombs of Paris or Catacombes de Paris are a famous underground ossuary in Paris, France. Located south of the former city gate, the "Barrière d'Enfer", at today's Place Denfert-Rochereau), the ossuary fills a renovated section of caverns and tunnels that are the remains of Paris' stone mines. Opened in the late 18th century, the underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1867. Following an incident of vandalism, they were closed to the public in September 2009 and reopened 19 December of the same year.[1]

The official name for the catacombs is l'Ossuaire Municipal. Although this cemetery covers only a small section of underground tunnels comprising "les carrières de Paris" ("the quarries of Paris"), Parisians today often refer to the entire tunnel network as "the catacombs".



Background: Parisian cemeteries

Since Roman times, Paris buried its dead on the outskirts of the city, but this changed with the rise of Christianity and its practice of burying its faithful deceased in consecrated ground in and adjoining its churches. By the 10th century, because of the city's expansion over the centuries, there were many parish cemeteries within city limits, even in central locations. When Paris' population began to rise rapidly in the following centuries, some of these cemeteries became overcrowded where expansion was impossible. Soon only the most wealthy could afford church burials, which led to the opening in the early 12th century of a central burial ground for more common burials: initially dependent upon the St. Opportune church, this cemetery near Paris' central Les Halles district was renamed Saints Innocents Cemetery under its own church and parish towards the end of the same century.

The practice common then for burying the lesser-wealthy dead was mass inhumation. Once an excavation in one section of the cemetery was full, it would be covered over and another opened. Few of the dead buried in this way had the privilege of coffins; often the casket used for a burial ceremony would be re-used for the next. Thus the residues resulting from the decaying of organic matter, a process often chemically accelerated with the use of lime, entered directly into the earth, creating a situation quite unacceptable for a city whose then principal source of liquid sustenance was well water.

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