Two very different news items came to my attention this week, one right after the other.
Earlier this week it was reported that thieves had broken into a tiny church in the Italian mountains and stolen a reliquary containing drops of blood from Bl. John Paul II. Other valuables were left behind, including the collection box, leading some to believe that the reliquary was stolen for the value it will attain once John Paul is canonized in April:
Thieves broke into a small church in the mountains east of Rome over the weekend and stole a reliquary with the blood of the late Pope John Paul II, a custodian said on Monday.
Dozens of police with sniffer dogs scoured the remote area for clues to what the Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana called "a sacrilegious theft that was probably commissioned by someone."
Franca Corrieri told Reuters she had discovered a broken window early on Sunday morning and had called the police. When they entered the small stone church they found the gold reliquary and a crucifix missing.
Then last night I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and found a picture of a man on a motorcycle. The photo was unremarkable at first glance, but then the eye gravitates to the carpeted floor, the flower-topped pillars strung with "do not pass" chains, and the people in the foreground viewing as if this was a museum exhibit. But the man on the motorcycle is not one of Madame Tussaud's wax sculptures; he is a corpse who has been posed on his motorcycle for viewing at a wake.
(Nota bene: I consulted the urban legend fact-checker Snopes to see if there was any information on this photo, but I could not find anything to prove or disprove the description of the photo as being of a "guy on the bike [who] is dead." But this is not the only known incident of posing corpses on motorcycles. In 2010, another family posed their dearly deceased on a motorcycle for his three-day wake.)
As shocking as is this particular example of the handling of human remains, this isn't a new trend. Some years back there was news of LifeGem, an online company that offers to turn the cremated remains of your loved one into a cultured diamond. It seems that in our ever more utopian society, not only are people eagerly seeking ways to cull out unproductive human beings from the herd and mark them for warehousing and death, but they are also seeking ways to make even the dead productive. If you thought that the one blessing of being dead was that you would be safe from such designs, think again.
When I commented on LifeGem some years ago on Jimmy Akin's blog, the question arose from the blog's readers of how this kind of treatment of the human body differs from the time-honored practice of saving the relics of saintly people and mementos from beloved deceased. The juxtaposition of the theft of Bl. John Paul II's relic and the corpse on the motorcycle reminded me of that old question. What is the difference? Aren't these practices all just similar ways in which survivors comfort themselves after the loss of a loved one?
Yes and no.
Yes, it is true that for many centuries, humans have made a practice of keeping not just relics from saints but also mementos from beloved deceased. And, sometimes, those mementos were even turned into jewelry. If you know anything about antiques, you know there is a whole category of collectibles known as mourning jewelry—jewelry made from human remains, usually hair. To be fair to LifeGem, they offer to use hair to make your cultured diamond as well as cremains. And since hair is a disposable part of the human body, I cannot see anything wrong with keeping hair from a loved one as a memento or with turning human hair into jewelry.
In my opinion though, there is something fundamentally distinct between the practice of keeping mementos of a deceased person and turning a human body into a rock. Not to mention using a human body to create a spectacle at a funeral by posing it for the shock and awe of mourners who attend a funeral both to pray for the dead and pay respects to survivors. When the human body is made over into something much less than it was, be it a shiny rock or a gruesome mannequin, the human body is being treated as a toy and as a possession of others.
The Catholic Church requires respect for the bodies of the deceased, as is noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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 (CCC 2300).
But what about relics? What about those drops of blood from John Paul II that were treasured by that little church in Italy, and stolen by thieves?
The relics of saints are treasured first and foremost because of the union of the holy person with Christ. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy explains:
The Missale Romanum reaffirms the validity "of placing the relics of the saints under an altar that is to be dedicated, even when not those of the martyrs." This usage signifies that the sacrifice of the members has its origin in the sacrifice of the altar, as well as symbolizing the communion with the sacrifice of Christ of the entire Church, which is called to witness, event to the point of death, fidelity to her Lord and Spouse (237).
In other words, saintly relics are valued as an extension in time and space of the Incarnation and of the sacrifice of Christ. They are signs of union with God and the communion of the saints, and facilitate our devotion to God and the saints. The Church has strict guidelines intended to safeguard the relics of saints, both to ensure the relics' authenticity and to preserve the human dignity of the deceased to whom the relics belong.
And I think that is the major distinction to make: In our treatment of the deceased, we must never forget that human remains are not our personal possession to do with whatever we please. Particularly in the case of baptized Christians, they are fragments of a body that once was a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. But even the remains of a non-Christian are fragments of a body that once held a soul made in the image and likeness of God.
Many have puzzled over why the Risen Christ told St. Mary Magdalene not to touch him for he had not yet ascended to his Father (John 20:15–17). I like to think that Christ was telling Mary that she should not cling to him, that he would be around for a while before the Ascension. But there may be a larger spiritual point we can take from this episode in the Gospels.
There is no need to cling to a loved one's body as a source of comfort. Instead we should rejoice in our loved one's anticipated reunion with his Father in heaven and our hope to join with him there someday, and therefore treat the remains of our loved ones with the respect and dignity such a hope should inspire in us.