In 18th-century Paris, there were a lot of dead bodies and a limited amount of space to bury them, and eventually the city ran out of ground. The graves held so many dead that bodies burst through people’s basements. I once heard on a walking tour that Parisians who lived near these pre-catacomb graveyards couldn’t keep milk — it would spoil within hours. The bacteria in the air, from proximity to so much rotting flesh, would also turn wine. Catholicism forbade cremation, and crypts were already a public-health nightmare, so the only place to go was down. Burials within city limits were finally banned in 1780, after two decades of attempts. Today, the Paris Catacombs are thought to be home to six million skeletons. The visionary designer hired to renovate the ossuary a few decades after its creation must have known he was building something that had lasting power. It’s as if he built it fully aware that it would be a tourist attraction in 200 years’ time.
Read Letter of Recommendation: Catacombs at The New York Times Magazine.