Monday, 24 November 2008

Paris: quarries and catacombs (2)



When Paris's overcrowded cemeteries became a danger to public health in the late eighteenth century, further burials within the city walls were legally prohbited - but the problem was not yet solved. A few years later, in 1780, a burial pit in the Saints-Innocents cemetery overflowed into a neighbouring cellar, graphically highlighting the urgency of the situation. What to do with the corpses already in the city's over-stuffed cemeteries?

An obvious answer lay literally under the feet of the authorities: the network of now-disused quarries underneath the city. Bodies were transferred from burial grounds to former quarry tunnels from 1785, in what proved to be a satisfactory solution to the problem. Undertakers' carts full of remains were accompanied by priests on their night-time journeys to the now-consecrated catacombs. Fresher cadavers - many from the first wave of revolutionary killings - were covered with quicklime. The bones were then simply piled up and their section labelled with the cemetery of origin. In total, the skeletons of nearly six million people were transferred here.

The General Inspector of Quarries at the beginning of the nineteenth century, one Hericart de Thury, had a brainwave. What if the remains were somehow made into a visitor attraction? Bones were tidied, with tibias and skulls arranged into walls and other designs. Cabinets displaying fossils and examples of bone pathology added further interest to the walk through the tunnels. Although the latter have gone, the bones themselves remain popular with visitors to Paris. The catacombs are atmospheric - although perhaps a little less so since 1972, when electric lighting was finally introduced.

Not all visitors have been equally welcome. On 2 April 1897 a secret concert in the catacombs by a group of amateur musicians caused a scandal. They played pieces including Chopin's Funeral March and Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre for an invited audience.

However, while Paris had solved the problem of its cemeteries, the issue of underpinning the city remained important. There were many more miles of quarries under the city's streets and buildings, often dangerously close to the surface. Methods of consolidation have included erecting pillars, filling existing tunnels, building a network of new tunnels, or reinforcement with metal supports and concrete. New building frequently requires deep foundations, as they must reach the bottom of the lowest level of quarry underneath - those of Sacre Coeur are exceptionally so, descending the depth of the hill of Montmartre.

Further reading (in French): Paris Secret, published by Gallimard, is not only full of fascinating information on the quarries and catacombs but is also beautifully illustrated.
Related post: Part One.

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