One of my blog posts was about visiting dead people in cemeteries and church crypts. I neglected to tell you about the real fun trip we had visiting the dead in a place you’d never imagine. We went to visit the six million dead people whose bones are stacked up in 186 miles of limestone caverns (or quarries as they call them here) located 29 meters below the streets of Paris. It is the ossuary called the Catacombs of Paris.
You talk about creepy. Here are all these bones and skulls stacked neatly in rows. Sometimes they are arranged to make a statement to the visitor. Sometimes there are piles like the wheelbarrow just dumped them from their original cemeteries.
By the end of the 12th century, extraction of limestone building materials began beneath the streets of Paris. The citizens of Paris were reminded of these caverns in the mid-1700’s when sinkholes would occur. A large (quarter of a mile long) sinkhole happened a week before Christmas 1774. The king appointed Charles-Axel Guillaumot (1730-1807) as Inspector of the Quarries, a title he would hold until his death.
It was Guillaumot’s responsibility to map and reinforce the underground labyrinth of tunnels. In 1787, the retaining walls of the ancient cemetery, des Saints-Innocents, gave way (ten centuries, twenty-two parishes, and over twenty-million bodies). The dead occupants started to encroach on their living neighbors. It wasn’t a pretty sight. At this point, Guillaumot suggested taking the remains and transferring them to the Catacombs. A tradition was started that would continue for another one hundred years.
It took 15-months, working all night, to transfer the bones from the Saints-Innocents to the catacombs. Priests chanting the “Office of the Dead” followed funerary carts draped in black sheets. From 1786 to 1814, the government emptied the remaining church and parish cemeteries. During the Haussmann era, unknown cemeteries were discovered and those remains were transferred to the catacombs.
During the French Revolution, two cemeteries were the primary burying spots for the victims of the guillotine: Cemetery of the Madeline and the Cemetery of Errancis. The folks executed on the Place de la Révolution (now known as the Place de la Concorde) were thrown into a big pit in the Cemetery of the Madeline. It was there that the bodies of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Danton, the Girondists and Robespierre found their final resting place. Well, not so final.
Around 1848, the remains from the pits of the Cemetery of the Madeline finally made their way to the catacombs. With the exception of the Picpus Cemetery, the catacombs now hold the majority of the victims from the Revolution and in particular, The Terror.
But what ever happened to Monsieur Guillaumot? He was imprisoned during the Revolution for his close association with the regime as well as some nasty comments made by former disgruntled employees. He was one of the few lucky ones who got released before the Committee of Public Safety got around to him.
M. Guillaumot resumed his role as the Inspector of Quarries and died in 1807. He was buried in the Cimetière Sainte-Catherine. In 1883 the cemetery was excavated and the remains of its inhabitants, including M. Guillaumot, were transferred to the Paris Catacombs.
I would consider this to be the proper final resting place for the Inspector of Quarries.
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Copyright © 2013 Stew Ross