Trilogy of Death, Part II



Fontaine des Innocents, by John James Chalon (1823)


So yesterday we pondered the dead at the Cimitière des Innocents (CDI), once Paris’s largest and oldest graveyard smack dab in the middle of town (where the Renaissance Fontaine des Nymphs, aka Fontaine des Innocents** currently is, near the RER Les Halles station). Our cliffhanger left us off with figures; when space ran out at CDI, mass graves of 1500 cadavers per pit were created. Left open till they were filled (the air must’ve been tangibly disgusting!), they were then closed off and a new one of equal size was dug. With the horror of numbers checked off, what about the business of death?



Plan de Turgot (1730)

Income from each burial – mass or otherwise – went to St Eustache (the large church to the north of current-day Les Halles) after CDI became part of its parish property in 1303 (it was later the property of St-Germain-des-Auverrois, the church just across the road from the Louvre’s Cour Carré). The Bishopric of Paris owned much of the lands and tax rights over central Paris, which caused them to open the marketplace next to the cemetery, so to better monitor the trading and assure that they got their share from the trading. The cemetery was opened to merchants in an attempt to reclaim a part of their monopoly over Paris trade.



St Eustache church with Les Halles in foreground. Taken from WikiCommons, photo by Alfie Lanni (Flickr)


The living and the dead co-existed to a point where a whole genre of medieval art – the “Dance Macabre” – was created on the back wall of the CDI. From an art historical point of view this makes CDI supremely important, as the 15th century Dance of Death was the first and finest known example. Unfortunately the wall was razed in order to expand the abutting road, but there are several Holbein woodcuts as well as French and English prints of it, as well as descriptions.



WikiCommons – Une des 17 gravures sur bois de la Danse macabre du cloître des Saints Innocents à Paris. Publiées en 1485 par deux éditeurs parisiens, Guyot Marchant et Verard, elles furent diffusées dans toute l’Europe. Le seul exemplaire parvenu jusqu’à nous se trouve à la bibliothèque de Grenoble.

Since they were making hand over fist, the Church pointedly ignored sanitary issues repeatedly raised by the Crown. What overflowed as quickly as the church coffers was the GROUND. Skeletons of decomposed dead went to charniers (wall closets lining graveyards, housing bones of the dead), but the cadaver’s fatty residues remained in the earth, leaving greasy mounds that couldn’t process the dead at the rate it was being asked to.  Yet the only modification the church would make was to raise its funerary charges!


The court of Louis XV issued an investigation in 1763 of the neighboring Les Halles commerce. Inspectors recorded local stories of meat that rotted before one’s eyes, a perfumerie unable to sell its wares due to the putrid air, tapestry merchants whose rugs changed color if exposed too long and wine merchants whose barrels yielded only vinegar. Several edicts by various Kings to move the parish cemeteries out of the city were resisted till the situation came to a head in the spring of 1780 after a prolonged period of rain.

On 30 May a cellar wall bordering CDI gave way under the weight of the excessive burials and humidity and spilled a mess of decomposed corpses, thus infecting the mud. Talk about a gush of gore! No horror film could top this. The building was evacuated but not even the thickest masonry could keep the stench of rotting flesh at bay, which finally prompted Louis XVI to exile all parish graveyards outside the city walls (you wonder why Montparnasse, Montmartre and Pere Lachaise are in the outer arrondissements – there’s your answer).



Père Lachaise, photo taken from WikiCommons

By 1786 bones of 6 million bodies were exhumed from cemeteries throughout the city and moved to the catacombs (former mines) out of town, at Denfert Rochereau (in today’s 14th Arrt). Just as a grisly conclusion – Many bodies hadn’t fully decomposed and had turned to margaric acid (fat). This fat was collected and turned into candles and soap. Guess that’ll make you think twice before washing your face with soap!



Paris Catacombs “Stop, this is the empire of death” photo taken from MichaelJohnGrist.com **

Fontaine des Innocents (1547-1550) was built by architect Pierre Lescot (there’s a street with his name in the Les Halles area). François 1er, and later his son Henri II had Lescot transform the old Louvre (originally a fortress under Philippe Auguste) into a palace. The Cour Carré that we see — The Sully Wing’s courtyard – is thanks to Lescot’s designs. Jean Goujon was the sculptor for both the Fontaine des Innocents as well as the Cour Carré. Both also collaborated on the roof of the church across the road, St Germain l’Auxerrois.

La Morte St Innocent will conclude our 3-part Trilogy of Death.