Sunday, 16 September 2012


One of the things that I've never done as a priest is officiate religiously (or in any other way) at an exhumation. I'm not entirely sure what one might do, or what prayers one might say. The other day I was reading a detective novel by a writer who is reputed to research his work very well (told me by one who was consulted by the same writer on a certain issue). There was an exhumation in the course of the novel, and the writer recorded that the police chaplain was present and said some prayers about the person 'returning to us'.

Well, I'm not sure that the person was returning to us in any meaningful sense, but more interesting is the fact of the prayers themselves, and the sense that they might in some way be necessary or appropriate.

What I mean is this. I am a great fan of the archeological programme called Time Team; they are digging up skeletons all the time, but these are treated with no special reverence. In fact, I think that in most cases a bit of interesting pottery would get more attention.

And yet these skeletons are the remains of someone's son or daughter; they were presumably loved and valued in this life, but once those who did so have also died, then the necessity of treating their loved ones'  remains with reverence also vanishes.

It's a bit like the unborn, isn't it? An unborn child with loving and expectant parents is a baby. One without loved ones is merely a fœtus.

A skeleton with loved ones is in some sense human. One without is an archeological exhibit.

Which is why, when I watch Time Team and similar programmes, I say a quick prayer for the souls of those whose bodies they dig up. Maybe one day I'll be glad of somebody doing the same for me.


pelerin said...

I agree - I do enjoy watching programmes such as Time Team but feel sad when human bones are put into boxes and then onto shelves.

Years ago there used to be a skeleton of a man (possibly Neanderthal?)who had been dug up in Whitehawk displayed in the local Museum. I always offered a silent prayer for him when taking my children there. I wonder what became of him?

I spent the first year or two of my life in a house which had been part of a Monastery. After leaving,
the kitchen which had been a Victorian addition was pulled down and I was told years later that several skeletons of monks/abbots had been found buried under the floor. Obviously the kitchen had been built on top of the monks' cemetery.

When I mentioned this to the Priest who received me into the Church he said that they had probably been praying for me - I like to think so. They certainly gave me an interest in archaeology.

Ttony said...

Father, there was a Catholic priest who attended the exhumations of those believed killed by Dr Shipman whom he had buried. My memory is vague about what he did but was interviewed subsequently. I have no wish to plough through Shipmanry on Google but if anyone remembers the priest's name, it might be worth searching for him.

Perpetua said...


There's a lovely story about the monks of Stratford Langthorne Abbey...of which nothing now survives. When the ground was excavated to build the Jubilee Line Extension, the bodies of over 650 monks were found - and were reburied by the monks of Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire.

Here is a link about this:

I have the same issue about digging up human remains and putting them on show as others seem to have....

There's also currently an on-line discussion about the decision by one diocese in England and Wales to offer lay services for funerals when no priests are available - it would be interesting to know what others think.

Kind regards


Annie said...

In another life I was one of those who curated Human Remains. Part of my research was into the attitude of visitors towards them. The majority said they were happy for Human Remains to be studied, but only as long as they were treated with the respect you would give a relative of your own lying there on the table, not treated as curios for display, so not treated as objects. I would agree with this. I always said a prayer for them whenever I studied at them, and ok, nuts I know, but always said hi to them when I entered the store room. I am very very uncomfortable with Human Remains being displayed as aretefacts.

They are always someone's mum, or dad, or sib, or child. You can't fail to acknowledge that when you have a skeletonised person in front of you. They are you as you will be.

Thought you might find this of interest:

pelerin said...

Fascinating comments from Annie and quite understand why she said hi to the skeletons. (Wish I'd known what you did Annie when we met at Arundel!)

Have been googling to try and find out what happened to the skeleton in the museum. Discovered my memory was playing tricks - it was a long time ago - and that it was two women from the Neolithic period on display. Was not able to find out where they were removed to but hope they were given a decent burial somewhere.

sjgmore said...

Even before I joined the Catholic Church I felt uncomfortable with human remains being put on display as artefacts. I can recall seeing a shrunken head in a museum as a small child and I felt a natural sort of reverence and pity for the man whose head has become a source of curiosity for spectators.

Now whenever I find myself viewing remains on display I always pause and say a brief prayer for the repose of their soul. I'm sure I've gotten strange looks for crossing myself in front of mummies, but I do it all the same.

Alan Harrison said...

Some years ago, during major works at York Minster, it was necessary to disturb a number of burials. I remeber being shocked on a subsequent visit to see the chalice and patten buried with a mediaeval archbishop (de Grey IIRC)on display, as were the head of his pastoral staff and coffin lid. The latter artefacts didn't bother me too much, but I was horrified - in a cathedral with a longstanding Anglo-Catholic tradition - to think that the cathedral authorities hadn't had the elementary decency to reinter His Grace's chalice and patten with his remains.

And perhaps I should courteously point out, Father, that to some Christians the display of relics, especially complete skeletons as in the case of SS. Ambrose, Gervasius and Protasius, is quite shocking. I don't just mean protestants: I recall the alte Luke Connaughton writing that many Catholics were relived that veneration of relics wasn't compulsory.