Holy Innocents' Cemetery

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Holy Innocents' Cemetery
Saints Innocents 1550 Hoffbauer.jpg
The Holy Innocents' Cemetery, c.1550. The Church of the Holy Innocents, bordering the Rue Saint-Denis, is in the background.
Paris department land cover location map.svg
Location of Holy Innocents' Cemetery
Established12th century

Closed: 1780

Removed: 1786
Country France
Coordinates 48°51′36″N2°20′56″E / 48.860°N 2.349°E / 48.860; 2.349
TypePublic (not extant)
Style churchyard
Find a Grave Holy Innocents' Cemetery

The Holy Innocents' Cemetery (French: Cimetière des Saints-Innocents or Cimetière des Innocents) is a defunct cemetery in Paris that was used from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris and had often been used for mass graves. [1] It was closed because of overuse in 1780, and in 1786 the remaining corpses were exhumed and transported to the unused subterranean quarries near Montparnasse known as the Catacombs. The place Joachim-du-Bellay in the Les Halles district now covers the site of the cemetery.

Paris Capital of France

Paris is the capital and most populous city of France, with an area of 105 square kilometres and an official estimated population of 2,140,526 residents as of 1 January 2019. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of finance, diplomacy, commerce, fashion, science, and the arts.

A mass grave is a grave containing multiple human corpses, which may or may not be identified prior to burial. The United Nations has defined a criminal mass grave as a burial site containing three or more victims of execution. Mass graves are usually created after a large number of people die or are killed, and there is a desire to bury the corpses quickly for sanitation concerns. Although mass graves can be used during major conflicts such as war and crime, in modern times they may be used after a famine, epidemic, or natural disaster. In disasters, mass graves are used for infection and disease control. In such cases, there is often a breakdown of the social infrastructure that would enable proper identification and disposal of individual bodies.

Montparnasse administrative quarter in Paris, France

Montparnasse is an area of Paris, France, on the left bank of the river Seine, centered at the crossroads of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the Rue de Rennes, between the Rue de Rennes and boulevard Raspail. Montparnasse has been part of Paris since 1669.


The cemetery took its name (referring to the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents) from the attached church of the Holy Innocents that has now also disappeared.

Bible Collection of religious texts in Judaism and Christianity

The Bible is a collection of sacred texts or scriptures. Varying parts of the Bible are considered to be a product of divine inspiration and a record of the relationship between God and humans by Christians, Jews, Samaritans, and Rastafarians.

Massacre of the Innocents narrative from the Gospel of Matthew

In the New Testament, the Massacre of the Innocents is the incident in the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, orders the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Most modern biographers of Herod, and probably a majority of biblical scholars, dismiss Matthew's story as an invention. The Catholic Church has claimed the children murdered in Jesus's stead as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents Day – is celebrated on 28 December.


Sources describe the burial ground, then called Champeaux, and the associated church in the 12th century. [1] It was located next to the central market (the original location of Les Halles).

Under the reign of Philip II (1180-1223) the cemetery was enlarged and surrounded by a three-meter-high wall. Les Innocents had begun as a cemetery with individual sepulchres, but by then had become a site for mass graves. People were buried together in the same pit (a pit could hold about 1,500 dead at a time); only when it was full would another be opened.

Philip II of France King of France from 1180 to 1223

Philip II, known as Philip Augustus, was King of France from 1180 to 1223, the seventh from the House of Capet. His predecessors had been known as kings of the Franks, but from 1190 onward, Philip became the first French monarch to style himself "King of France". The son of King Louis VII and his third wife, Adela of Champagne, he was originally nicknamed Dieudonné (God-given) because he was a first son and born late in his father's life. Philip was given the epithet "Augustus" by the chronicler Rigord for having extended the crown lands of France so remarkably.

Charnier with mural of the Danse Macabre Charnier at Saints Innocents Cemetery.jpg
Charnier with mural of the Danse Macabre

In the 14th and 15th centuries, citizens constructed arched structures called charniers or charnel houses along the cemetery walls to relieve the overcrowding of the mass graves; bones from the graves were excavated and then deposited here.

Charnel house

A charnel house is a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored. They are often built near churches for depositing bones that are unearthed while digging graves. The term can also be used more generally as a description of a place filled with death and destruction.

Between August 1424 and Lent 1425, during the Anglo-Burgundian alliance when John Duke of Bedford ruled Paris as Regent after the deaths of Henry V of England and Charles VI of France, a mural of the Danse Macabre was painted on the back wall of the arcade below the charnel house on the south side of the cemetery. [2] It was one of the earliest and best-known depictions of this theme. It was destroyed in 1669 when this wall was demolished to allow the narrow road behind it to be widened. [1] [2]

The dual monarchy of England and France existed during the latter phase of the Hundred Years' War when Charles VII of France and Henry VI of England disputed the succession to the throne of France. It commenced on 21 October 1422 upon the death of King Charles VI of France, who had signed the Treaty of Troyes which gave the French crown to his son-in-law Henry V of England and Henry's heirs. It excluded King Charles's son, the Dauphin Charles, who by right of primogeniture was the heir to the Kingdom of France. Although the Treaty was ratified by the Estates-General of France, the act was a contravention of the French law of succession which decreed that the French crown could not be alienated. Henry VI, son of Henry V, became king of both England and France and was recognized only by the English and Burgundians until 1435 as King Henry II of France. He was crowned King of France on 16 December 1431.

John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford 15th-century English prince and nobleman

John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford KG was a medieval English prince, general and statesman who commanded England's armies in France during a critical phase of the Hundred Years' War. Bedford was the third son of King Henry IV of England, brother to Henry V, and acted as regent of France for his nephew Henry VI. Despite his military and administrative talent, the situation in France had severely deteriorated by the time of his death.

Henry V of England 15th-century King of England and Duke of Aquitaine

Henry V, also called Henry of Monmouth, was King of England from 1413 until his early death in 1422. He was the second English monarch of the House of Lancaster. Despite his relatively short reign, Henry's outstanding military successes in the Hundred Years' War against France, most notably in his famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, made England one of the strongest military powers in Europe. Immortalised in the plays of Shakespeare, Henry is known and celebrated as one of the great warrior kings of medieval England.

In the 16th century, the prominent Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius studied the bones of corpses in the Holy Innocents cemetery.

During the reign of Louis XV, inspectors recorded accounts of the difficulties in conducting business in the area due to the unsanitary conditions of the cemetery, caused by overuse and incomplete decomposition of bodies.

Two edicts by Louis XVI to move the parish cemeteries out of the city were resisted by the church, which profited from burial fees. To reduce the number of burials, the price of burials was increased. After a prolonged period of rain in spring 1780, conditions became untenable. On 4 September 1780, an edict forbade burying corpses in Les Innocents and in all other Paris cemeteries.

Bodies were exhumed and the bones were moved to the Catacombs in 1786. [3] Many bodies had incompletely decomposed and had reduced into large deposits of fat ("corpse wax", or adipocere), chiefly in the form of palmitic acid. [4] During the exhumation, this fat was collected and subsequently turned into candles and soap. [5]

Fontaine des Innocents in its original location in the 17th century (19th-century engraving) Fontaine des Innocents2.jpg
Fontaine des Innocents in its original location in the 17th century (19th-century engraving)
The fountain as it appeared in 1791 when the French constitution was proclaimed on the Marche des Innocents French constitution proclamation 1791.jpg
The fountain as it appeared in 1791 when the French constitution was proclaimed on the Marché des Innocents
The market in the area of the Holy Innocents cemetery in 1850 Saints Innocents 1850 by Hoffbauer.jpg
The market in the area of the Holy Innocents cemetery in 1850
Fontaine des Innocents today (detail) FontaineDesInnocents(detail).JPG
Fontaine des Innocents today (detail)

The church was destroyed in 1787 and the cemetery was replaced by a herb and vegetable market. The Fountain of the Nymphs, which had been erected in 1549 next to the church, was dismantled and rebuilt in the center of the new market. Now known as the "Fountain of Innocents", it still stands on Joachim-du-Bellay Square. [1]

At its closure, it was estimated that from the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century the Holy Innocents' Cemetery had been the repository of corpses from 22 parishes in Paris, including the remains of those who died at the Hôtel-Dieu, plague victims, and various unknowns who drowned in the Seine, died on the roads, or were crippled at the nearby crossroads of the "Court of miracles", for a total of about two million Parisians.[ citation needed ]

There are no signs of the charnel house today as the present location contains buildings, arcades, and shops. [6]

In modern fiction

The destruction of the church and removal of the cemetery at Les Innocents is the subject of Andrew Miller's Costa prize winning 2011 novel Pure . [7]

In Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat , Armand's coven of vampires resides in the Cimetière des Innocents when Lestat first encounters them, and they remain there until shortly before the cemetery is finally destroyed.

The cemetery and the Catacombs to which the remains were relocated play an important part in Barbary Hambly's novel Those Who Hunt The Night .

In Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume , the main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born here in 17 July 1738.

Related Research Articles

<i>Danse Macabre</i> artistic motif on the universality of death

The Danse Macabre, also called the Dance of Death, is an artistic genre of allegory of the Late Middle Ages on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the Dance Macabre unites all.

Catacombs of Paris underground ossuary in Paris, France

The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris' ancient stone mines. Extending south from the Barrière d'Enfer former city gate, this ossuary was created as part of the effort to eliminate the city's overflowing cemeteries. Preparation work began not long after a 1774 series of gruesome Saint Innocents-cemetery-quarter basement wall collapses added a sense of urgency to the cemetery-eliminating measure, and from 1786, nightly processions of covered wagons transferred remains from most of Paris' cemeteries to a mine shaft opened near the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire.

Tomb burial place

A tomb is a repository for the remains of the dead. It is generally any structurally enclosed interment space or burial chamber, of varying sizes.

Ossuary place like a building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains

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Catacombs of Rome church building in Rome, Italy

The Catacombs of Rome are ancient catacombs, underground burial places under Rome, Italy, of which there are at least forty, some discovered only in recent decades. Though most famous for Christian burials, either in separate catacombs or mixed together, people of all the Roman religions are buried in them, beginning in the 2nd century AD, mainly as a response to overcrowding and shortage of land. The Etruscans, like many other European peoples, used to bury their dead in underground chambers. The original Roman custom was cremation, after which the burnt remains were kept in a pot, ash-chest or urn, often in a columbarium. From about the 2nd century AD, inhumation became more fashionable, in graves or sarcophagi, often elaborately carved, for those who could afford them. Christians also preferred burial to cremation because of their belief in bodily resurrection at the Second Coming. The Park of the Caffarella and Colli Albani are nearby.

Macabre that which has a grim or ghastly atmosphere

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Philippe Landru (7 February 2008). "Cimetière des INNOCENTS (disparu)" (in French).
  2. 1 2 Sophie Oosterwijk (2008). "Of dead kings, dukes and constables. The historical context of the Danse Macabre in late-medieval Paris". Journal of the British Archaeological Association. 161: 131–162. doi:10.1179/174767008x330563.
  3. "Paris' Les Innocents cemetery" . Retrieved February 6, 2011.
  4. R.F. Ruttan, J.F. Marshall (1917). "The Composition of Adipocere" (PDF). Journal of Biological Chemistry. pp. 319–327.
  5. "You (posthumously) light up my life". Scientific American blog. 15 April 2011.
  6. Trouilleux, Rodolphe (1997). Unexplored Paris. Parigramme. p. 11.
  7. Kyte, Holly (2011-06-16). "Pure by Andrew Miller: review". Telegraph. Retrieved 2012-01-05.

Coordinates: 48°51′38″N2°20′52″E / 48.86056°N 2.34778°E / 48.86056; 2.34778