Relics, DNA, adoption and squeamishness

Posted by HC in Books / Ethics / Spirituality on 14 October 2008

A memoir by novelist A M Homes, a documentary on coroner Shiya Ribowsky and the disinterment of anglo-Catholic Cardinal Newman have combined to make me ponder the business of our connection with the remains of the dead. What’s odd is that modern technology seems to make us more medieval than ever.

I am inclined to think that it is old-fashioned to obsess on the physical remains of the dead. The soul – whatever that is – has moved on and the rest is just, well, gristle. So I was a bit suspicious when I heard that the New York authorities were trawling through twenty-some thousand human remains – some of them beyond vestigial – and attempting to identify them. Put it another way: it seemed odd to reunite the bereaved with the remains of their loved-ones, again however vestigial.

The testimony of Shiya Ribowsky (not least in his book, Dead Center), the senior coroner leading the project, put me right. A devout orthodox Jew, he clearly believes there is meaning in his work and he has the kind of manner which puts second-guessing at a discount. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

His work is of course driven by technological capability. Since we can now interrogate the merest smudge of human remains, we are bound to. Mourning a representative “unknown soldier” was a moving thought, but it doesn’t survive our ability to identify the remains of all the fallen.

I think the point of the post-mortem forensic DNA work is that it is an attempt to overcome the randomness of the 9/11 slaughter. We have to accept the Humpty-Dumpty nature of the world: we can’t unstir custard. But what terrorists can blast into anonymity, we can to some small extent put together and are bound to want to.

I am growing in sympathy for adopted people who want to know who their biological parents were. A M Homes found herself recognising her biological father’s backside, as she writes in her A Mistress’s Daughter. Not all of it, just aspects. She felt herself connected to this man even though she had reason to resent him. We will never know the precise role of genes and biology in our make-up, and not least because it almost certainly is not remotely precise. I did think she was a bit self-obsessed about her quest for identity. But then – I realised – it is never quite fair to accuse good writers of being self-absorbed. It is in a very real sense what good writers do. What’s interesting about Homes’s case is that she is aware of the modernity of her quest: we may not what genes and DNA do exactly, but we know that we are somehow code-bearers. Homes writes very well about the degree to which bits of her biological parents stick to her, and even of her irritation that she can’t choose those parts, though her four parents variously chose her and chose to abandon her.

The case of the remains of John Henry Newman, the brilliant 19th century English Roman Catholic, reminds us how peculiar and enduring the thread of human remains can be. The Catholic church wanted to relocate Newman’s remains as a precursor to their being the object of veneration and his possibly becoming a saint. God is assumed to transmit his grace through shards of human remains. Or is it that saintly remains hold a remnant of his grace, rather as material may hold radioactivity? The point is especially well made granted that in the absence of remains of the Cardinal’s body in his grave, the church is having to make do with a few threads of clothing which have survived there.


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