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This cult of the corpse is just a pagan relic

Sunday 12 May 2013

Matthew Parris

Published at 12:01AM, April 13 2013

We should end our irrational reverence for dead bodies. It would free our spirits and help the sick to live

The day my father died was cold, grey and wet. We and our mother sat by his bed as rain dripped from trees outside. We could tell it was over even before Dad’s hands grew cold. A doctor came in to ask (in Catalan) if they could have his eyes, which were healthy and might be useful. The hospital would supply glass replacements for the corpse.

There was no need for family consultation. None of us looked inquiringly around to gauge the others’ response. I can’t recall we’d even bothered discussing this with him. “Why are you even asking me?” he would have said: “Obviously, anything that might be useful — take it. It won’t be me.” Dad would have attached no significance, no sanctity and no further purpose to a corpse.

I think of him now, smiling at how un-Dad-like his body looked with glass eyes (as if he would have cared!) now that debate returns this week on the status of bodily organs. The news on Wednesday was that good progress is being made expanding the national organ donor list. Numbers of those donating organs have risen by 50 per cent in the past five years.

Nevertheless, three people a day are dying for want of a donor and the figures came with a disturbing footnote: the UK’s “family refusal rate” remains among the highest in Europe. Surviving relatives may override the express wishes of the deceased and withdraw permission; and often do. I don’t myself see why, if I can bequeath my house to a donkey sanctuary without fear of countermand, I cannot bequeath my kidneys to a hospital; but that’s for lawyers. No, what baffles me is that in the 21st century so many modern, educated people should still attach this mysterious reverence to what the Bible itself variously calls dust, ashes and grass. So why the remarkable, irrational persistence of primitive ideas of the sacrosanct nature of human remains? Why the reverence for dead flesh?

Why (and only relatively recently, since 2003) have we started bringing back the bodies of all service personnel killed in conflicts abroad? We never used to. Have we become more pious as a people? Or more pagan?

It was cool and wet, too, on the day I descended an open shaft to visit one of the (probably) thousands of underground chambers in the Tierradentro region of Colombia. Rain dripped from the trees on to the fearsome man-bird stone sculptures that guard these funeral halls. In the first eight centuries AD there existed a civilisation of which little survives except the extraordinary preparations it made (as with the Ancient Egyptians) for the next life of the dead. Only skin and bones now remain in these richly decorated giant burrows, surrounded by pots, pans, jewellery ... everything necessary for the world to come.

The day I went to see the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was just as cold and grey. Not as a pilgrim but as a curious journalist I took my place early in the morning in the queue outside Westminster Cathedral. Then, to what I suspect was our mutual horror, I saw Tony Blair. He must have preceded me and was leaving the forecourt carrying the rose that pilgrims bought for £1 to be blessed (I suppose) by being touched against the glass case surrounding the elaborate closed casket containing (it was said) bits of the thigh and foot of the deceased Catholic saint. It was a sort of holy roadshow, touring Britain.

I am still reeling from the experience: not of seeing a box containing a few old bones, but of seeing a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and one of the leaders of the Western world, whose beliefs have helped to shape our age, as the captive of something for which I can find no word but “superstition”. Having no belief in God I cannot be a Christian so it will sound perverse to say this: but the sanctification of relics offends me as a Christian.

I hope you’re interested — I am — in the roots of a belief that, even in godless Britain, stubbornly refuses to succumb to science, common sense and reason, and is now killing three of our fellow citizens a day. Is reverence for human remains the fault of religion?

Over the past two millennia, the Church has been profoundly confused about its attitude. The story of the Resurrection, of course, and of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, point unambiguously towards a literal belief that we die with our bodies and will live again with our bodies.

Judaism is not so sure. Islam is very sure: the body is from Allah and cremation is, therefore, haraam (sinful); though some Muslims believe there is an indestructible bone from which even a cremated body will be reassembled at Judgment Day. An English nurse working in a Baghdad hospital where the uncle of Saddam Hussein had had his leg amputated told me of the doctors’ terror when the severed leg was temporarily mislaid: they knew that the family would want it preserved so the uncle could be buried in one piece, ready for the resurrection. The early Christians preached burial rather than cremation for the same reason: the Greeks and Romans were cremating commoners, believing that eternal life was only for gods and the top brass.

Jesus’s own utterances are ambiguous. The New Testament says that He told an astonished audience that “at the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”. This account, more spirit-based than flesh-based, is most uncompromisingly expressed by St Paul, chastising the Corinthians: “Some will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! ... it is sown a physical body, [but] it is raised a spiritual body.”

St Paul’s view is reflected in the approach of most nonconformist and Protestant churches: among the first to accept cremation, having rationalised that if God can resurrect the dead, He can surely do it from ash or grave. But Roman Catholicism banned cremation until 1963; and even in Britain it was a crime until 1884, when a court had refused to convict poor, eccentric Dr Price, almost lynched by a Welsh mob because he had tried to cremate his dead infant son.

I have concluded that, with the massive exception of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, the world’s modern religions have not led, but been led by, primitive beliefs in the essential inseparability of body and soul. These beliefs are far older than, for instance, Christianity. The suspicion lingers, and has lingered right down from prehistory, that in some deep, mysterious manner, a corpse is inextricably tied to the human spirit that once animated it. So long as you believe, therefore, that the person persists in some way, on some plane, after death, his or her actual remains become sacred for you, special, without price.

The irony is that it is Christianity that contains within itself (as that quote from St Paul suggests) the seeds of thinking that could break those chains, releasing the spirit from the flesh and consigning the corpse to insignificance and corpse-reverence to paganism. But the Church has not been brave enough to follow through. As we shall be reminded next week, an awful lot has been invested in funeral rites.

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