Paris' Les Innocents Cemetary

III - Les Innocents and the Catacombs of Paris

Paris’ Les Innocents cemetery

Central Paris' first christian burial ground dates from the early fourth century, and lay just to the north of the Rive Droite Parisian population that had moved to the Rive Droite after the fall of the Roman empire. When the first churches appeared with the spread of Christianity, their foundations became crypts for those seeking a final resting place “closer to god”, but because of the high price of this service, it was only accessible to the very wealthy. The common folk, in exchange for a smaller fee, were buried outdoors in consecrated clergy property, which at first was the abovementioned burial ground – and burials there had become both legal and commonplace by the end of the 6th century.

Paris’ grew northward to reach the cemetery gates by the 11th century. The Bishopric of Paris owned much of the lands and tax rights over central Paris, so opened a marketplace next to the cemetery to better monitor the trading and assure that they got their share from the trading. The Les Champeaux burial ground was known as the "Saint-Opportune" cemetery, even if it had a chapel dedicated to the Saint-Michel, until it was replaced with a church, a gift from Louis VI, around 1130. The next King, Louis VII (1137-1180), reduced the clergy's hold over Les Champeaux by half when he claimed the market for the crown. It was around then that the church and cemetery took the name of "Saints-Innocents," and that the Capital's cemetery problems began.

The Bishopric of Paris opened its cemetery to merchants in an attempt to reclaim a part of their monopoly over Paris trade. This situation lasted until the reign of Philippe Auguste, who ordered the cemetery walled. The Les Champeaux marketplace went indoors after the king built two long halls next to the cemetery, and grew after he bought another more northerly market from the Priory Saint-Lazare and brought its merchants to central Paris. These two buildings formed the base of the quarter that would later be known as "Les Halles."
Les Innocents burials rose in number with the religious fervour of the early 13th century. The doctrine of the time tended towards fire and brimstone, which was all the better to increase the flow of the defunct faithful into consecrated church property accompanied by a sizable burial fee. This tendency grew to such extremities that, in an edict drawn jointly by the Saint Louis and the pope Gregoire IX in 1235, all those who left nothing to the church their last testament would be excommunicated, as well as the notary and witness of any such will.

The income from burials in Les Innocents went to the church of Saint-Eustache after it became part of its parish property from around 1303. The cemetery’s distance from its church eventually moved the Bishopric to reclaim it, from when it was used to bury the dead from Parisian parishes that had no cemetery, as well as parishes whose cemeteries were full. The number of burials doubled when the Hotel-Dieu (Paris' largest hospital then) began to add their dead, and again when the dead from other hospitals joined them as well. Les Innocents became the property of the Saint-Germain-des-Auxerrois and the Nuns of the hospital Sainte-Catherine from the middle 14th century.
Les Innocents had begun as a cemetery of individual sepulchres, but had become a site for mass graves by then. A pit was closed only when it was full (they were dug to hold around 1,500 dead at a time), and another would be opened next to it. This system had used all available ground by the end of the same century. Instead of slowing the burial rate, the church did quite the opposite; around 1400, they intimidated their richer parish members into donating enough funds to build long galleries to the inside of all four cemetery walls called "charniers." When the cycle of mass burials had filled the entire cemetery, the contents of the oldest pit would be dug up and moved to one of the eaves and walls of the long houses. Charnier arcades also made ideal stands for merchants, who had returned to the cemetery in the early 15th century.

The church's income from Les Innocents must have been enormous, as they pointedly ignored the sanitary problems their cemetery created. Their coffers were overflowing with the product of the enormous burial rate, but unfortunately, so was the earth; the skeletons of decomposed cadavers went to the charniers, but their fatty residues remained in the earth. The plague of 1418 poured 50,000 dead into Les Innocents over a five-week period, and the hundred-years war brought more. The air of central Paris must have been already putrid then.
In spite of this, the church insisted on the "flesh-eating" quality of Les Innocent's soil, which "justified" their burying a body for only a few weeks before moving it to the charniers. A funeral was almost a parody then: the defunct would be placed in a coffin over the pit for the duration of the ceremony, after which he would be dropped through its trap door bottom. Other stories tell of gravediggers who, after a day of funeral ceremonies, dismembered any cadavers and sent their torsos only into the pit below, which made yet more room for more burials; the resulting pile of arms and legs were burned, and their bones went directly to the charniers. Les Innocents was already saturated by then as well as the many other churches in Paris, but the clergy's power over both the commoners and the nobility assured the continuation of these unsanitary practices until well into the 18th century.

By the late 17th century, the ground of Les Innocents had become a greasy mound incapable of decomposition, and the residents of the Les Halles quarter were a constant source of complaints. The Crown made many attempts to coerce the clergy into halting or slowing burials in overcrowded church cemeteries, but to no avail. The only modification the church would make was a rise in the price of their funeral services.

Nothing was done to remedy the situation until a first investigation by the court of Louis XV in 1763. Inspectors recorded local stories of meat that rotted before one's eyes, a perfumery unable to sell its wares because of the overpowering smell of the cemetery, tapestry merchants whose wares changed colour if exposed for long periods of time in Les Halles, and wine merchants whose barrels yielded only vinegar if they stayed in the cellar too long. A first edict the same year ordered, without results, all Parisian cemeteries to be moved to the outside of the Capital, and a second two years later only asked for the reduction of burials within city limits. Louis XVI, in 1775, in his first year on the throne, ordered the elimination of all Parisian cemeteries once again, but the church openly opposed this measure. They again suggested a rise in burial fees, but this time to a high enough price to be accessible to only highest classes. The parliament approved the King's order one year later, but the church insisted on accepting new burials until a definite solution was found.

The act that closed the fate of the Parisian cemeteries came after a prolonged period of rain in springtime of 1780. On the 30th of May, a cellar wall in a property bordering Les Innocents gave way under the weight of excess burials and humidity, spilling a mess of decomposed bodies and infected mud into the room. The building was evacuated until repairs could be made; but even the thickest masonry over the cellar wall couldn't keep them from sweating a substance that smelled of the rotting flesh that had filled the cemetery since a thousand years.

An edict on the 4th of September 1780 put an end, without exception, to all burials in Les Innocents. The academy of Science opened a study the same year to determine the work necessary to eliminate all Parisian cemeteries - which meant finding a suitable place for the transfer of its millions of cadavers. This inquest continued for almost five years, but on the 9th of November 1785, the King published an edict that declared Les Innocents to be the site of a future vegetable and spice market.

The Underground Cemetery

It was in his last year of service that the police Lieutenant Lenoir had made the suggestion of using Paris’ old stone mines as a final destination for the dead of Les Innocents. The task of executing this project went to his successor, Thiroux de Crosne, who on the 9th of November 1785 asked Guillamot to begin looking for a mine large enough to serve as a massive ossuary.

In Guillaumot's opinion, the mines under the lieu-dit "Tombe-Issoire" to the south of the Porte d'Enfer (Denfert-Rochereau) were the best suited to serve this purpose. The stone mines there were of an exceptional height - three metres in places - and their consolidation was already under way. The Administration des Carrières had still to make certain modifications to enable the mines there to accept their new vocation as a Catacombs: they had to connect separate rooms into a series with new passages and galleries and separate them from the rest of the Parisian underground; provide practical accesses from the surface; and find a suitable method of depositing the dead to their final resting place.
The Administration had procured a house (still isolated then) near the north-east corner of today's rues Dareau and Tombe-Issoire. After adding a winding staircase of 77 steps between its cellar and the mines below, and a wide well to the same destination from its garden, both the living and the dead had their respective accesses to the future catacombs.

Les Innocents was being prepared for the removal of its denizens during the final stages of the Tombe-Issoire mine consolidations, but only the poorest of labourers would accept the task of unearthing the dead. Certain parts of the cemetery were left untouched because some mass graves were too recent for their bodies to be exhumed. The work there must have been horrible; any partly decomposed bodies had to be burned to eliminate their flesh residues before could be transported to the underground ossuary.

Both the cemetery and the catacombs were ready by springtime 1786. Under the guidance of Guillamot, the Abbots Motret, Mayet and Asseline consecrated the mines on the 7th of April, and the first shipment of bones took place the same day. The church turned the latter event into a macabre spectacle that was highly documented by the press of the time: the charniers of Les Innocents were the first to be emptied onto wagons which when full were covered with black cloth. These travelled in a convoy from central Paris to the Porte d'Enfer, forming a parade led by Paris’ Abbots and broken by monks chanting the litany of the last rites. Once at the garden of the house on the rue Dareau, the wagons simply emptied their contents into the well and the caverns below.

Les Innocents alone had an estimated 6,000,000 dead. The church cemeteries of Saint-Eustache and Saint-Etienne-des-Grès emptied their contents into the underground in 1787, and many others followed after all ecclesiastical holdings were sold as national property from 1792.
The catacombs in their first version were rather unorganised. Deep pits dug into lower mine levels and formations of stone took the largest of the skeletons, but the hallways were lined with pell-mell piles of bones and skulls. The monuments, statues, and tombstones of Les Innocents had been brought to the underground as well, but most of these were lost or destroyed with the 1789 revolution.

This last event marked the beginning of a difficult period for Paris' underground. Most of the laws above-mentioned legislation was overturned then, and it would take many years before the Administration des Carrières returned to its pre-revolution form. This we will see in the next chapter, along with the evolution of the underground from a time when mining in the Parisian basin was banned altogether.

It was Hericart de Thury, Guillaumot's successor from 1808, who gave the catacombs their almost final form. He had a certain passion for the ossuary, and gave much attention to the aeration and renovation of the underground passageways and bones that were already by then becoming victim to the constant subterranean humidity. The arrangement walls and columns of skulls and tibias were his work, as well as the humorous but macabre displays of skulls in hearts and other geometrical forms. It was only from then that the catacombs were open to the public; it was actually in this light that the caverns and passageways were arranged the way they are today. The inscriptions there have a note of "chamber of horrors" irony about them - one of the most commonly quoted is over the principal archway: "Stop! This is (you are entering) the empire of Death."