Sunday, November 25, 2007

Relics, Cremation and Organ Donation, Part 1

In her first novel about Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters refers to the Christian Tradition of venerating the dead bodies of our holy ones as "a morbid taste for bones."


Nah, there's nothing morbid about us...


Anyway, Christian veneration of the bodies of the dead is as old as Christianity itself. It set Christians at odds with much of the ancient world around them, who, with a view toward hygiene, believed in getting dead bodies as far away as they could, as fast as they could. Burn them, bury them on the outskirts of town, just get rid of them before they spread whatever disease they died of.

Along come these strange little groups of Christians. We want to keep the dead nearby. Alright, we’ll bury them because we must, but not too deeply and not too far away. We want the graveyards here in the center of our community. Let’s go down to the catacombs to hold our liturgies on their tombs. And later, we’ll dig up the bones again and richly adorn them with gold and precious gems:

“We afterwards took up Polycarp’s bones – as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels and more purified than gold. We deposited them in a fitting place.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, c. 135).
Why such veneration for an empty shell?

Well, for one thing, the bones of the just have the power to heal and raise the dead:

“And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Eli'sha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Eli'sha, he revived, and stood on his feet” (2 King 13: 21).
But whence comes this power?

Those bones are no empty shell. “This would not have happened unless the body of Elisha were holy,” record the Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390), which further advise: “Do not seek after Jewish separations… or purifications upon touching a dead body…. For as to those who live with God, even their very relics are not without honor.”

It is, you see, because they live, and are not dead that their power remains with their bodies.

Fundamental to understanding our “morbid taste for bones” is the truth of the resurrection. Christianity is an incarnate religion. “I believe… in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” – so concludes the Apostle’s Creed. Ours is not a shadowy afterlife of wispy shapes and clouds. There, our flesh is restored, to burn or to exult, as the case may be.

Soul and body are one. The soul is the body’s life. They will be reunited.


dave said...

I'm curious, what's your source that most pagan societies want to rid themselves of their dead as soon as possible? I'm no expert on funerary customs, but I do know of a number of cultures who seem to keep the dead close at hand. Do an image search for a "tzompantli" for a hint at the ancient Mesoamericans' fascination with the dead human body. There have been plenty of head hunters and such, too, who keep the bodies of the enemies around. This isn't the same as venerating the remains of one's friends, but there is a connection.

Some cultures even eat their dead loved ones. Check out Beth Conklin's ethnography of the South American Wari', Consuming Grief, for a modern examination of the practice. These people cannot stand the thought of their bodies being separated from the tribe. Again, this is different from the Christian practice, but there are echoes.

There are plenty of examples in ancient literature of people who resist burial. Achilles and Gilgamesh both error by not allowing the bodies of their friends to be buried, either to continue the insult of an enemy or to keep a friend on the earth.

We Christians do keep the bones of saints in our altars, but making a special place holy with remnants of the dead does not seem peculiarly Christian to me. My own opinion is that all men understand intuitively that the body is a sacred thing, and it is only the great perversion of "scientific" thought that frees him of this.

John R.P. Russell said...

I am not here speaking of most pagan societies, but particularly of Greco-Roman society at the time of Early Christianity.

My source is my memory of Dr. Webb's lectures in my History of Christianity course. I shall explore to see if I can find other sources.

John R.P. Russell said...


"In the world in which Christianity emerged,... contact with a corpse caused ritual impurity and hence ritual activity around the deathbed was minimal.... A procession accompanied the body to the necropolis outside the city walls. There it was laid to rest, or cremated and given an urn burial, in a family plot that often contained a structure to house the dead. Upon returning from the funeral, the family purified themselves and the house through rituals of fire and water.

Beyond such more or less shared features, funeral rites, as well as forms of burial and commemoration, varied as much as the people and the ecology of the region in which Christianity developed and spread. Cremation was the most common mode of disposal in the Roman Empire, but older patterns of corpse burial persisted in many areas, especially in Egypt and the Middle East. Christianity arose among Jews, who buried their dead, and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were its defining events."

dave said...

Thanks for the link.

dave said...

I finally got to a computer that could load the images on this post. They remind me of a little church in Urbania, the town where Monica and I lived for a month on our honeymoon. It's called La Chiesa Dei Morti. The basement was used as a cemetery, and because of some natural fungus in the air there, many of the bodies were mummified naturally. Check out this link for a brief discussion:,en,SCH1/objectId,SIG58590Pit,curr,EUR,parentId,RGN9553it,season,at1,selectedEntry,religion/intern.html

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