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”.
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.