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Death in the City of Love

Paris, city of lights, city of love, city of magic, city of art, city of death. Some twelve million people call the Paris metropolitan area home including about two and a quarter million within Paris’ 20 arrondissements. Millions more call Paris their permanent home, including upwards of seven million in the Catacombs in the Montparnasse district.

The Paris basin area was first inhabited around 4200 B.C. Then in around 250 B.C., a group of people known as the Parasii established a settlement that would stay. The Romans moved into the area in 52 B.C. and founded a settlement on the left bank of the Seine named Lutetia Parisiorum

During Roman times, the Roman rulers applied their burial customs to the populace dictating that burials were to occur outside the town limits. The Law of the Twelve Tables stated, it is forbidden to burn or inter a corpse within the walls. The citizenry largely ignored that edict. As the years ticked on and Roman influence waned and was supplanted with Christian and Catholic tradition, most Parisians elected to bury around the perimeter of parish churches in areas known as God’s Acres. Wealthy and influential church officials were often buried within the walls and floors of the church. And in the words of modern-day realtors, it was location, location, location. The common belief was that the closer the body was to the altar, the better chance the deceased would be inched towards the heavens with the parishioners’ prayers. By the end of the eighteenth century, all of Paris’ fifty-two parish churches and their adjoining burial grounds were full to bursting with bodies. When all available space with the walls, floors and interior of the church was filled, even the elect and the well to do had to settle for ground burial. The dead were buried ten deep, but still there was not enough room, so they were often dug up and their bones piled high in gallery arcades and charnel houses surrounding the cemeteries. Cremation was not an option, since the Catholic Church expressly forbade it. No body = no resurrection.

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