Cimetière des Saints-Innocents: A Post in Honor of Halloween
If you go to Paris today, you will see a nineteenth-century city. That is because — I’m saving you the tedium of reading that guidebook — the medieval city that Victor Hugo described so longingly in The Hunchback of Notre Dame was almost entirely razed beginning in the 1850’s and replaced by a new, unrecognizable one. New Paris is, of course, much more elegant (and also cleaner) than its predecessor; but, speaking as a medieval history buff and someone writing on Halloween, I have to say New Paris is also a lot less cool. Old Paris, of which virtually nothing remains today, was, as kids would put it, hardcore. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the city’s very center, at Europe’s most notorious cemetery, the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents.
The Holy Innocents began innocently enough, as a church graveyard, sometime around the 9th century. By the 13th, it had gotten crowded enough that mass graves (with a capacity for 1500 bodies each) replaced individual sepulchers, and a ten-foot wall was constructed around the site. The purpose of the wall was to allow packing more dirt (and more burials), so that the cemetery surface was above street level. A century later, charnel houses were constructed all around the wall, to house bones emptied from mass graves so they — the graves — could be reused.
As the centuries passed, the wall around the cemetery grew taller and taller, and its contents were packed higher and higher. Imagine a giant brick cup, towering (by some accounts, as high as ten stories) above the surrounding neighborhood, filled with far too many corpses and too little dirt to absorb the products of decomposition. Liquifying soft tissues — fat, mostly — thoroughly saturated the earth, turning the surface of the cemetery into a malodorous, greasy swamp. Masonry gave way under the pressure of gravediggers packing down the material, and when rains came, human remains sometimes washed into nearby basements and the street.
But worst of all was the smell. By the 18th century, at the end of which the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents finally went — and not so gently, as we shall see — into that good night, Paris in general was notoriously odoriferous. One contemporary traveler likened entering Paris to being “sucked into a fetid sewer”. The stench of the city’s main cemetery, however, was unspeakable. If you realize that a dead body smells worse than anything a human being can experience, imagine tens of thousands of bodies decomposing pretty much in the open at any given time — and imagine that going on for centuries. In one place. Everything around the cemetery — houses, furniture, clothes, dishes, linens, drapery, carriages, water, food, living people’s skin and hair — was absolutely permeated through and through with corpse juice. Describing the smell of the neighborhood served as a literary challenge both to contemporaries and later writers, for a description adequate to convey the awfulness of its exhalations tested the very limits of human expression. (Perhaps the most brilliant example appears in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.)
Clearly, this abomination could not go on forever, but it went on as long as it could. A royal committee was formed in the 1760’s for the purpose of studying the effects of the cemetery on health in the cartier. The committee’s work moved at approximately the speed of the continental drift until, in early September 1780, Mother Nature took matters into her own loving hands.
1780 was a very rainy year. It had rained copiously that spring, and the infernal cup regularly overflowed, spilling bones into streets, wells and houses. On the morning of September 4, an entire wall which the cemetery shared with a private house burst, expelling some two thousand cadavers in various states of decomposition into the basement of that house. (Imagine waking up to that.)
The incident led to riots, and King Louis XVI hastily issued an order against any new burials in the Cemetery of the Innocents. This was not much relief to Parisians, since it took until 1786 for the government to finally reach the decision to demolish the cemetery and rebury the remains.*
The macabre project took two years. Crews worked round the clock emptying and dismantling the ossuaries. The cemetery was excavated during the day, soft tissues cleaned off from under-decomposed corpses and boiled down to harvest the fat — which was then sold to soap and candle manufacturers to partially offset the cost of the project. Joints were disarticulated and bones separated and grouped. For two years in the dead of night, Parisians could hear the steady clop-clop-clop of horses pulling tumbrils draped in black, which were used to cart the cleaned and sorted bones to abandoned stone mines. By the time the cemetery was fully excavated, more than two million bodies had been disinterred and placed in the catacombs beneath the city.
The cemetery was finally gone and replaced with a vegetable market in 1788, mere months before the Revolution.
The site of the cemetery today is named after a 16th century poet, Joachim du Bellay. In the center you’ll find one of the few vestiges of pre-reconstruction Paris**, the Fountain of the Innocents. Constructed in the 16th century, it once abutted a wall of the cemetery. After the demolition of the cemetery, it was moved to the center of the site.
*The reason it took so long to get rid of the cemetery is that, as is the case today, not all powerful interests were aligned with what was best for the public. The early 21st century has its climate deniers. The 17th and 18th centuries had influential people denying what was by then obvious to everyone — that having an ever-growing pile of lightly buried cadavers in the middle of a major city was bad for health, and bad for the quality of life. Just like today, the driving force behind denialism was money. Burial fees from the cemetery were a big source of revenue for the Catholic Church, and it fought hard to keep it going, whatever the human cost. Besides, since the cemetery was actually making people sick, that meant more deaths — which meant more burials — which meant more money for the Church; so you can imagine the perverse incentives which motivated the learned Church fathers to profess skepticism in the face of well-attested effects of the cemetery: the stench, the leaching of human remains, the water contamination, the stench. It was the Church that insisted the science wasn’t settled as to whether human decomposition was a health hazard, forcing the cash-strapped government to launch a formal inquiry; and then did everything in its power to hamper, delay and sabotage that inquiry. (There was a string of inquiries, in fact — and each time one reached the self-evident conclusion, the Church complained that the study was flawed, and that a further investigation was needed.) That is why, even after the 1780 disaster and the ensuing riots, it still took six years for first crews to show up to start dismantling The Holy Innocents. By that point, the French Crown was utterly bankrupt, and could not even pay off the prelates to go away. That King Louis XVI and his ministers still prevailed in their efforts to get rid of the cemetery is probably one great achievement in an otherwise incompetent and tragic reign.
** The major reason for the reconstruction of Paris was urban warfare, and a succession of revolts that had made it very hard for the army to maintain control of the metropolis, with its cavernous buildings and various nooks and crannies. The most famous features of today’s Paris — its huge plazas and sprawling avenues and boulevards — did not exist in its medieval predecessor and were designed specifically to make it easy to bring in troops and maneuver them around the city (which notably worked to the Nazis’ advantage in the 1940’s). Some of those wide thoroughfares bisected neighborhoods notorious for serving as troublemaker strongholds.
The destruction of medieval Paris — The Holy Innocents, excepted, of course — was a tragic loss for France and for all of humanity; bitterly opposed at the time and so traumatizing for the populace, it practically launched the historic preservation movement. Still, you have got to admire the 19th-century approach to big public works:
“Gentlemen, if we have to completely destroy and rebuild Paris to stop this barricade bullshit, let’s at least make the new one the most amazingly beautiful city the world has ever seen. Yeah? That sound good? Everyone agree? Yeah? Okay then.”