Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Saints of Fromelles

A bit of a post-script on the popular religion thing. Not long after Anzac Day, Australian news reports featured the exhumation of the remains of 400 Australian and British soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles, in the north of France. This engagement in 1916 resulted in thousands of deaths, and many soldiers were buried in mass graves. Recent historical research has led to the location of one of these graves, and the Defence Departments of Britain and Australia are sponsoring the DNA testing of the remains to identify the soldiers. Afterwards they’ll be re-buried in individual graves.

Three reasons are given for doing this.
  • it will allow the living relatives of lost soldiers to finally know what happened to their ancestors
  • it will honour the men themselves who gave their lives to “save” the people of France
  • it will “help the people of Fromelles to erase the wounds of the war”.
Given that these young men died over 90 years ago, they are unlikely to have any living relatives who actually knew them. Any interest is likely to be academic rather than deeply personal. Furthermore, if the wounds of a 90-year-old war have not healed yet, the identification of a few foreign soldiers is unlikely to do the trick!

There are interesting parallels here with two forms of religious expression which most of us would say, if directly asked, that we believe outmoded.

The first of these is the notion of ancestor worship. While a serious religious practice in Chinese culture and in a different way in Australian Aboriginal culture, this has never been strong in European cultures. Yet here we wish to support the descendents of worthy but ordinary people to honour their ancestors and give them what we see in our culture as a “proper” burial.

The other parallel is with the worship of saints’ relics which was a popular form of medieval piety, and which still survives in Roman Catholicism. Here the remains of modern-day “saints” (people who, indeed, died to save us) will be interred, labelled and made available for pilgrimage. Already there has been blessing of the remains, and no doubt when they are identified there will be further religious ceremonies.

These young men would have felt it was ludicrous to be seen as “saints” and although they were all volunteers they were not necessarily more courageous than the average. Yet their ordinariness is a huge part of their appeal – we could be like them, with a little fortitude and the right circumstances. Just like the Christian saints, they give us something to aspire to.

In one respect at least we have an advance on the middle ages. Advances in DNA testing ensure that no-one will foist false relics on us, and pilgrims to Fromelles will at least be able to be sure that actual remains of the named soldier lie beneath.

No comments: