Since the 12th century, Paris has been full of the ancient dead. Long before our modern burial practices, it was widely accepted that the poor and lesser-wealthy were to be buried in massive gravesites, similar to a garbage heap or a landfill. Saint Innocents Cemetery, an infamous gravesite in Paris, would dig up a large hole, fill it with bodies, and then cover it all up with dirt. It negated the need of coffins and ceremonies, and it made for a quick, easy, and relatively efficient process.
That is, until the land became overburdened with decomposing human flesh, which eventually leaked into the well water underneath the gravesite.
Sometime during the 17th century, Saint Innocents Cemetery was deemed insanitary and unfit for Parisian life. The church that owned Saint Innocents Cemetery, however, did not cease burying the dead there. It made them too much money. Instead, they found ways to expedite the decomposition process of human skin, so all they had to do was bury the bones. Even after the government decreed limitations on cemetery burials, Saint Innocents Cemetery continued their massive burial operation, with no signs of slowing.
In 1777, Police Lieutenant General Alexandre Lenoir was overseeing the consolidation of various abandoned stone quarries around Paris. It was he who first thought up the idea of using the underground tunnels connecting the stone quarries as gravesites. In 1786, the Parisian government began a massive exhumation and transportation process for all of Paris’ dead, which were to be reburied and laid to rest in the underground tunnels.
Upon entering the Catacombs, you are greeted by a descending spiral stone stairwell, which leaves you surrounded by silence and darkness. After passing through a long, twisting tunnel of stone, you are met by a sculpture created long before the tunnels were turned into catacombs. Continuing along the path, you are dumped out in front of a stone portal. The portal has an inscription carved on it: Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la Mort. In English, it says, “Stop, this is the empire of Death.”