Disinternment discomfits -- and all the more when the remains to be transferred are those of John Henry Newman, the famous nineteenth-century English convert cardinal.
The British government has now allowed Cardinal Newman’s exhumation and transferral to a marble sarcophagus in a church in Birmingham. The Vatican has ordered the transfer so that pilgrims can venerate his tomb in advance of his expected beatification next year.
Because of a nineteenth-century law which forbids the transfer of bodies from graves to church tombs, special permission was needed from the Ministry of Justice. The transfer will take place in December, when an announcement from Rome will name the date of the beatification.
Expect dismemberment along with disinterment. Undertakers will open the lead-lined coffin at the graveside. Cardinal Newman’s corpse, in priestly vestments, will be transferred to a morgue where "major relics" -- such as bones from the cardinal’s hands -- will be retrieved. The remains will then be moved to a new coffin on display to the public before being placed in a marble sarcophagus following a celebratory Mass in Birmingham’s Oratory church.
So far, so normal. For Catholics, I mean.
But some are objecting -- among them, oddly, gay rights campaigners who say (and it’s true) that this goes against Cardinal Newman’s express wishes that he be buried with his life-long male companion, Ambrose St John, a fellow Oratorian.
The two men loved each other deeply, had a life-long friendship, and lived together. And since Newman’s death in 1890 they have remained in the same grave in Rednal, about eight miles from Cardinal Newman’s house in Edgbaston, outside Birmingham.
In 1854 Newman wrote: “We have bought (I trust) a burying place — under the Lickey Hills, just about eight miles off — it is a most beautiful spot. . . . We are going to build a cottage there and ultimately a mortuary chapel.” They share a tombstone with the inscription "out of shadows and phantasms into the truth" etched across it.
Newman wrote after the death of St John in 1875: "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine."
The Cardinal -a hyper-sensitive, even delicate man -- had intense friendships of the sort common in that age, especially in all-male bastions such as the clergy and Oxford.
We nowadays lack a word for the kind of intense association between celibates of the same sex which was common then. As Andrew Sullivan puts it, the Oxford Movement was "high camp as well as high church".
But it is de trop to claim that Newman’s passionate yet quite obviously celibate bond with the younger man was what gay rights groups nowadays mean by a "same-sex relationship".
Some think the two bodies should be transferred together. But it would be unusual, to say the least, for pilgrims to venerate a saint who shares a tomb. And it is likely that campaigners would soon turn it into a gay shrine.
As for Newman’s own wishes, he couldn’t have been clearer. "I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John’s grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will," he wrote, shortly before his death, adding: "This I confirm and insist on."
But however "imperative" your will, once you’re on the path to sainthood there are other considerations -- not least the need to identify and preserve the remains so that pilgrims can venerate them. Think of Pope John Paul II’s wish to be buried in Poland -- wholly ignored by the Vatican, as Karol Wojtyla surely knew it would be.
If the attempt by homosexual campaigners to claim Newman as gay wasn’t enough, the spokesman of the local archdiocese is suggesting he will be "a saint for Birmingham". Spending the latter part of his life in Birmingham - following his conversion aged 44 -- does not make the London-born Cardinal Newman a "Birmingham saint" (Ignatius of Rome? Bernadette of Nevers?) any more than being buried with a young man of whom he was deeply fond meant he had a "same-sex relationship".
Roll on the beatification -- and the chance for Newman to rest in peace from opportunists.