Well, tomorrow’s the Big Day. I go into the hospital with all my original parts, and come out in a few days with some new ones. And the question that’s weighing on my mind today is: (drumroll, please) What do they do with the old parts?
I mean, can I have the head of my own femur to use as a paperweight or something? It’s my femur, right? I brought it to the hospital with me, so I should be allowed to take it home, albeit in a hazmat bag.
I have lots of plans for this bone. I could put it in a shadowbox and create a little bone-fragment diorama. I could make it into some amazing Goth jewelry. I could polish it up and turn it into a family heirloom, so that generations yet unborn can have an actual bit of great-great-great-grandma to lose when they move to the moon.
Lest you think this is macabre, let me remind you that the habit of hanging onto bits of people is a time-honored practice. In fact, it’s one that has fascinated, amused, and horrified me all at the same time, ever since I learned about reliquaries and what they contain. Practitioners of many religions, Christianity and Buddhism among them, have long treasured bits of people, often encasing these bits in ornate, portable containers called reliquaries. While I would never dream of putting myself in the “saint” category (and people would be lining up to remove me from it in any case,) I think the reliquary idea could be a winner.
As early as the first century, AD, Christians started squabbling over the bodies of the Apostles. Italians stole (yes, you read that correctly) the body of St. Mark from Alexandria, so they could rebury him in the basilica San Marcos in Venice. (Recently the Venetians sent Egypt a finger bone as a token of good will, which adds a new and disturbing meaning to “giving the finger.”) A thousand or so years later, residents of Canterbury were dipping bits of Thomas Becket’s robes in his own warm blood for their reliquary value, and he wasn’t even a saint yet, having been dead for about five minutes. Few other saints got to rest in peace, as their bones were divvied up by opportunists and shipped to various churches. In fact, there have been so many of these dispersions that, at last count, St. Theresa of Avila must have had 47 ribs and 153 teeth. Buddha also scattered teeth all over Asia. Several saints had up to nine arms each, and in the late Middle Ages, there were enough shards of the True Cross around to build a large hut.
The unreliable provenance of these relics, not to mention the un-biblical veneration they got, was one of Martin Luther’s triggers for the Reformation. People’s credulous acceptance of, say, St. Peter’s tibia, or bits of St. Andrew’s skull really got on his nerves, particularly since most of the apostles were martyred by people not likely to hang on to a bit for the possible resale value. Some of them were buried in about five graves. Luther also cast reasonable doubt on the Genuine Burning Bush Branches, the fibers from Mary’s veil, and the nightmarish collection of foreskins. One of the more unstable French kings paid nearly half his kingdom for the purportedly original Crown of Thorns, somehow intact after nearly 13 centuries.
Saints and martyrs are not the only people to spread relics around. Several specimens of European royalty had bits of themselves interred in various locations, perhaps as a way of reminding the populace that the king was still with them. Communists, for reasons best explored by psychologists and from a long way off, like to keep whole leaders under glass. Lenin and Mao have been on display for decades, and there is an entire profession of people making sure that they stay presentable, which is something to think about the next time you decide you hate your job.
Anyway, all I want is my own relic, which I promise to treat in a tasteful manner, like some of these. Further bulletins as events warrant.