Medicine Macabre – Two Million Corpses

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I often hear about young people who enjoy taking romantic sojourns to a nearby cemetery, proving the eternal and inextricable bond between fervent sexual ardor and the grim inevitability of death.  

A trip to the cemetery you say? How adorable. Why, the last time I visited a graveyard I also had a grand old time. I returned with the cadaver of one grandmother, the body of an ex-member of the local constabulary, a recently deceased widow, and a young man whose gravestone read ‘Good Riddance.’ I shall not announce the ultimate purpose of these acquisitions, other than to say that my laboratory saw an extremely busy evening…

There is however one graveyard I would not recommend to even the most inflamed couple, that is, the Cimetière des Saint-Innocents, or the Holy Innocents’ Cemetary in Paris, France. Built in the 12th century, it is known to have housed well over two million bodies, crammed into a space barely a few city blocks wide, the corpses only ever partially decomposing, deposited unceremoniously over five extremely smelly centuries. Such a location would be guaranteed to stymie the arousal of any young loins, of that there is no doubt…

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Plan_de_Turgot-Paris-in-the-1870s

18th century Paris, with the least popular tourist attraction of all time smack in the center.

Built in the center of what would eventually become the thriving, chaotic metropolis of Paris, the graveyard was the prime dumping ground of ones deceased kin from the 12th century onward. The Church had established itself as the sole arbiter of burial practices and proceedings at the graveyard and was consequently pocketing an ongoing and extremely healthy sum. Initially a respectable enough size to house the locally deceased with individual sepulchers, the population of the swelling city soon began to overload the capacity of the grave-site and consequent problems, much like the rising smell, swiftly became all too apparent.

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Charniers – A.K.A the ultimate in pretending there isn’t a massive problem with your burial practices.

After expansion in the 13th century, the standard location of internment for poor citizens was the undignified-yet-efficient mass burial pits containing over 1,500 bodies each. The increasingly voluminous ‘intake’ was supplemented by the waves of plagues that regularly swept Europe, most notably the plague of 1418, which reportedly introduced 50,000 bodies to the burial pits over a five week period. Such was the quantity of dead, that long gallery-arch style buildings were constructed around the edges of the cemetery to where the grisly contents of the oldest burial pits were relocated to dry out. These charniers, or charnel houses had the drying bones stacked high into the eaves, no reference or record provided as to which bones belonged to which name. Thus was the fate of the working poor in Renaissance Paris.

The charniers were no solution to the lingering air of mortification, as oxygen could not reach the densely packed corpses to aid decomposition. One can barely imagine the smell; the sweet, cloying odor drifting about the city, especially on the warm days, spreading with every gust of wind, clinging to clothes, skin, food and saturating the air to such an extent that locals believed it was possible to be infected by miasmic fog itself.

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Smell not included.

Indeed, the effect of the putrid air was becoming more pronounced as time went by and complaints predictably increased. Local merchants claimed that it changed the color of fabrics, and that any wine stored in nearby cellars was swiftly ruined. Such was the influence of the church that even under public pressure, no changes were made for many decades, with the clergy legitimizing its actions by going so far as to claim that the land itself had special ‘dissolving qualities’. More accurately, the burial business was proving so profitable that there was little incentive to alter procedures.

The huge quantities of dead stacked in the 60 feet deep pits caused the ground to become increasingly slick with effluence and fluids of decay and putrefaction, to the extent that an 1852 article in Scientific American claimed that the aggregate human fat:

“…was employed to the extent of many tons by the soap boilers and tallow chandlers of Paris for the manufacture of soap and candles. The French are a people of fine sentiment, and they certainly carried the quality to a charming point of reflection in receiving light from candles made out of the bodies of their fathers…”

No corpses were harmed in the making of the the Fabrica. Nope. Just ethically dug up from amongst the thousands of others.

No corpses were harmed in the making of the the Fabrica. Nope. Just ethically dug up from among the thousands of others lying around.

The mephitic stench certainly didn’t deter the famous anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius from utilizing the site to acquire many corpses, many of which became unwilling subjects and ‘models’ of the ground-breaking and stunning De Humani Corporis Fabrica with its beautifully detailed illustrations.

The rest of Paris apparently lacked the nasal constitution of Vesalius and increasing complaints from the local populace, as well as several reports condemning the sanitary conditions, had caused Louis XV to issue several edicts in an attempt to close down the cemetery. His efforts were to no avail thanks to the influence of the Church, and it took a particularly grim event before his successor, Louis XVI, to finally succeeded in shuttering the location to further deceased inhabitants…

1024px-Saints_Innocents_1550_HoffbauerFollowing an intense period of rain in late May of 1780, the ground became particularly saturated, until with a low groan, the walls of a buildings’ cellar that adjoined the cemetery cracked and gave way, filling the room with a slick, disgusting wash of partially decomposed corpses, wet and decaying body parts and rotten mud, the result of five centuries of burials.

Enough was enough and the edict was finally issued – no more burials in the Cimetière des Saint-Innocents. The King of France had finally developed some fortitude and opposed the church, but the most important question remained – what do you do with the remains of two million corpses languishing in the center of thriving Paris?

The answer: the Parisian Catacombs – and the subject of the next article in the series.

(Sources available on request)


Dr. Pembroke – surgeon, physician, alienist; these are the collected writings of the doctor’s demented journals and articles as he studies the peculiar, disturbing and strange history of medicine and macabre through the ages. You can find more of his musings and articles here.

On Spotify? Dr. Pembroke invites you to listen to his collection of creepy music and twisted tunes in his ever-expanding playlist.

You can also find him on The Book Of Faces for his whereabouts, performances and other medically related curiosities.

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