A reader writes:
I went to a public lecture on November 4th down in New Haven, CT. The State Archaeologists and a Physical Anthropologist from Yale reported on the findings of 4 early Irish Catholic graves recently uncovered by construction on the Yale University campus. The State Archaeologist (Dr. Nick Bellantoni), by all appearances a nice gentleman and honest fellow assured the full house (standing room only crowd) that (I must paraphrase here because my recorder broke!), “in the judo-christian tradition, the bones are only material and meaningless, because the spirit or soul is what matters”. Then he proceeded to tell us how the Catholic clergy came out and gave directions on how to handle the bones and then blessed the site. This unmarked and forgotten cemetery might hold as many as 500-700 Irish Catholics from the 1830′s-1850′s.
This struck me as totally Puritan Protestant type “bible christian” type thinking. Heck, I carry around a 3rd degree saint medal that is reputed to be touched to an object that was once touched to a relic associated with the Saint! If I could touch my rosary directly to the bones of St. Patrick, I would get in line. So for us Catholics, or at least Irish Catholics do these bones retain meaning? I would argue that any An Gorta Mor (Famine) survivor found in these graves have multiple meanings for the decent community that is both sentimental and spiritual at the same time.
What is your opinion on how the bones of our Irish-Catholic ancestors should be handled? Meaningless material “artifacts” for the realm of scientific scrutiny, or sacred and holy objects like a relic? At the very least, the Irish Catholic community should use these remains to remind us of why and how we came to this place we call the United States.
Your instincts are sound. Here’s the Catechism:
2300 The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.
2301 Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious.
The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.
The mortal body is the temple of the Holy Spirit while alive and the seed of the Resurrection Body when dead, so Catholics rightly treat it with reverence and not merely as a disposable Tupperware container. This doesn’t mean that such remains cannot be reverently handled to gain scientific knowledge, as the Church says. But it does mean that the body is indeed to be treated with respect.