The Last Open Air Family Cryptes

The Garden of Saint-Séverin Paris 75005

Despite being smack in the middle of the busiest part of the city, you wouldn’t know this secret oasis exists unless you spot it from the Rue des Prêtres Saint-Séverin, and even then, its been closed to the public for a few years.

The 15th century Saint Séverin Church, can you spot the garden?

What’s remarkable about this tranquil garden is its gruesome past, which is a lovely contrast to the hoards of Starbucks sipping tourists who walk right past it unaware. From 1250 up until 1674, this garden was actually the final resting place for local Parisians. But this wasn’t your modern landscaped and marble chiseled tombstone decorated with seasonal shrubbery. Oh no, true to medieval form, this was a gruesome cemetery.

The LOCKED entrance of the garden, only open for religious celebrations and BBQ’s

There were two ways you could be interred here.

  1. Simply tossed in the mass common grave with every Tomas, Dagobert, and Godwin
  2. If you were lucky and came from a notable family, your body would be interred within a “charnier” (Latin for Carnalis, or ‘of the flesh’) and left to rot in style piled on top of your ancestors until only your bones remained.
View of the Charnel Houses from the locked gate on the Rue Saint Jacques
A view from the back of the Charnel Houses, a questionable backdrop for this playground

The word Charnier comes from the Latin word Carnalis, or “of the flesh”. Which is approrpiate considering it was a lot more modest to decompose within the cozy confines of a dozy open air mausoleum than in a mass pit with all the other village plebes.

View of Saint Séverin from 18th century Turgot map with arrow indicating the Charnel Houses

And right here within this garden are the only remaining original Charnel Houses in all of Paris, outfitted with benches instead of generations of decaying bodies. The most famous Charniers were those of the Cimetière des Innocents, an urban necropolis which became so overfilled with the dead that in 1780 a few surrounding basements began to cave in from the pressure of centuries of human remains.

Vue of the Innocents Cemetery

This event would be the catalyst which created the infamous Paris Catacombs when the question of “Well where the heck can we store millions of skeletal remains so they don’t become a serious public health issue?” was answered with “Yo let’s stack them up like Human Jenga pieces in abandoned underground quarry tunnels! IT’S A BINGO!”

The Catacombs of Paris.
Bones from the Innocents Cemetery put here in July 1809

The charniers of Saint Sèverin date from 1430 and originally surrounded this park until their professional retirement in 1674. A few were destroyed and tweeked over the years but the remaining were restored in 1940.

Check out Part 2 to learn how I managed to get past the locked gate in the middle of the night to see the Charniers up close!

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