Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust

The Roman Catholic Church wants to declare Cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, a saint. They wanted to remove his body from its original resting place to a place where the new saint could be properly venerated. To do this, the body would have to have been separated from the remains of the man Newman wanted to be buried with. After much controversy, they finally opened the grave and found…nothing.

Ruth Gledhill wrote about it here:

On Thursday, having won the battle to exhume Cardinal John Henry Newman’s body for its transfer to the Oratory in Birmingham, those paying their respects at the graveside had a bit of a shock. There was no body to exhume, nothing at all. Not a trace of bone, hair, human remains or anything except this plate. It means that he was not buried in the lead coffin that many supposed he had been but a simple wooden affair. It is not apparently unusual for remains to disintegrate totally in this fashion. A few fragments of hair preserved elsewhere will now be placed in a casket for veneration in the Birmingham Oratory, but of course there can be no ‘lying in state’ for a real body. At least it solves the Peter Tatchell problem. A non-existent body cannot be exhumed. As the spokesman for the Cause, Peter Jennings, has just told me, rarely can there have been a more vivid reminder of the truth of what the priest says at the Ash Wednesday Mass: ‘Remember Man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.’ As our capitalist world crumbles about us, it seems that Newman is a saint for our times in more ways than we could previously have imagined.

And Libby Purves, also of the Times wrote:

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh. After months of furious controversy about homosexuality, Victorian graveyard law and Birmingham Council planning, the man at the heart of the row has softly and silently vanished away like the Snark. Last week it was discovered, to the chagrin of exhumers, that Cardinal Newman is not in his grave at all.

So John Henry Newman, that humble, thoughtful, loving and humane convert, that hot tip for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, cannot after all be hoicked out and reburied. Not for him the marble tomb in the Oratory, still less the risk of being laid out with a nasty waxen mask from the Tussauds team over his dead face so that the faithful may file past and gawp as they do at Pope John XXIII and Padre Pio. Dust to dust: nobody can get their reverential paws on him now. Newman’s last wish, furiously quoted by Peter Tatchell, was to be buried alongside his close friend and companion of 30 years. He wrote: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave – and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”

. . .

Oh, enough! Even as a genuinely devout Catholic schoolchild I hated this stuff, and I hate it more now. The Church’s weird horror of fleshly things (unmarried or contracepted sex, gay love) is nastily counterpointed by its affection for cadavers. I know the theology, I accept that there is a distinction between voodoo paganism and the more complex ideas formulated by St Jerome and Thomas Aquinas. They say that relics are not worshipped in themselves but are an “aid to veneration” of people whose bodies “were the temples and instruments of the Holy Spirit”.

Fine. Save a well-thumbed prayerbook if you will, or a lock of hair. But these creepy exhumations feed the superstitious magical instincts of religion, not the spiritual and humane ones.

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