Reflecting on a Research Trip to Paris: The Paris Catacombs

Last week I took a two-day trip to Paris for research. There were a number of elements to the trip, and I am going to do a series of posts relating to each of them and this is the third (after the one about my visit to the National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France) and one on The Concorde Memorials). Unlike the other two posts, this part of the trip wasn’t an official part of the research trip, although it could easily have been as it connects to both my work on memorialisation and my work on contents tourism (primarily the visiting of places connected to books, TV programmes, and movies).

The visit to the Paris Catacombs was very much inspired by reading ‘The Missing Sister’ by Elle Marr, who has rapidly become one of my favourite authors. Until I read that book, despite even having been to Paris a number of times, I had never heard of the Paris Catacombs. And talking to others who know Paris much better than me, it seems that many others aren’t familiar with them. Anyway, some of the key scenes in ‘The Missing Sister’ happen in the catacombs, and, as I wrote in my review, I had hoped to visit the catacombs the month after I first read the book (March 2020, despite the review being done a few months later). But COVID-19 came along and the trip to Paris was cancelled. But once I knew that I would be going last week, I soon booked my ticket to go to the Catacombs. I then also re-read ‘The Missing Sister’, which I enjoyed just as much the second time around.

Although the Catacombs may not be that famous, they were very easy to find through a combination of Google Maps and then signposting from the nearest station.

Here is the outside of the building where you enter…

Once inside there are some panels with explanations of the catacombs and how deep they are…

After that, although there are some panels, the best way of getting information is through the audio guide which provides a commentary as you walk.

As noted in the audio guide and one of the (original) signs, as you go into the main section, you are entering ‘The Empire of the Dead’ (c.f. ‘Empire of Signs’ the book by Roland Barthes related to Japan, which was one of the main reasons I was in Paris as I covered in the first post in the series), where around 6,000,000 people’s remains are. Here is some information about the catacombs from Wikipedia.

The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone quarries. Extending south from the Barrière d’Enfer (“Gate of Hell”) former city gate, this ossuary was created as part of the effort to eliminate the city’s overflowing cemeteries. Preparation work began shortly after a 1774 series of Saint Innocents-cemetery-quarter basement wall collapses added a sense of urgency to the cemetery-eliminating measure, and from 1786, nightly processions of covered wagons transferred remains from most of Paris’ cemeteries to a mine shaft opened near the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire.

The ossuary remained largely forgotten until it became a novelty-place for concerts and other private events in the early 19th century; after further renovations and the construction of accesses around Place Denfert-Rochereau, it was opened to public visitation from 1874. Since 2013, the Catacombs number among the fourteen City of Paris Museums managed by Paris Musées. Although the ossuary comprises only a small section of the underground “carrières de Paris” (“quarries of Paris”), Parisians currently often refer to the entire tunnel network as the catacombs.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Paris

Here is just a small selection of the photographs that I took…

The long tunnels before you get to the main part of the catacombs
The start of the catacombs with the bones neatly stacked up
There are also patterns made with the bones
There are signs explaining when some of the bones were transferred to the site
Some of the signs have phrases on them
I have to admit I got quite excited when I realised that this one had Swedish on it… and that I understood it all (thanks to learning Swedish on Duolingo for the past couple of years)
It’s not all just skeletons – here and there I saw signs of the other exits and things that had happened over the years in this underground world – which gets discussed in ‘The Missing Sister’

I was so glad to have visited, I found the experience really fulfilling in a number of ways. Some of this, I will reflect on a final post later in the week.

One final thing to note about the visit – the exit is nowhere near the entrance and there are no signs to help you find your way back to where you started (if that’s where you want to get to)… if you do, once you leave the souvenir shop (which, from what I can tell, doesn’t appear to have copies of ‘The Missing Sister’ available, which it should – after all, they earnt nearly 30 Euros thanks to me reading the book!), you need to turn right and follow the main road for a few minutes.

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