I’m not sure whether you’d call it irony, hypocrisy or merely inconsistency, but I’ve never understood how the Church persuaded itself for so long that though life was life from the moment of conception, babies that died in the womb were cruelly consigned to unconsecrated ground when buried. Like many Christian practices, it’s likely to have originated in pagan form. The burial sites known as Cillíní, where foetal remains have been discovered, are often quite ancient, dating back to the 6th Century. The theology of Limbo Infantus might have simply been tacked on to pre-existing beliefs, rather like the coincidence that Christmas is celebrated suspiciously close to the Winter Solstice.
In the early years of the Church, commandeering existing pagan practices was seen as a necessary strategy when competing for hearts and minds, and of course, souls. It was a neat logic then that saw Limbo abolished, partly due to more theological competition, this time from Islam in developing countries.
Now stillborn babies are where they should be, in proper graveyards. But I have a nice story about one such Cillín.
When the M4 motorway was being constructed back in the Noughties, a medieval graveyard was excavated to make room for the off-ramp at Enfield. The remains of hundreds of bodies were removed and studied for archaeological purposes.
They are now stored in vaults owned by the National Museum. In fact, there are thousands of remains, uncovered during the building boom similarly stored, and I’ve something of a gripe about them. After they’ve been examined and any useful archaeological data has been gleaned from them, I think they should be re-interred on consecrated ground in the parishes in which they were discovered.
I’ve written about this before in The Irish Times but had no luck persuading the National Museum that the bodies amounted to more than data sources for possible future research.
However, I had some success with the fate of the remains of 62 babies who were buried adjacent to the main graveyard, known locally as Scaruppa. Though the main graveyard ceased functioning in the 14th Century, the first burials in this Cillín took place in the 1800s and the last in the 1920s. The medieval part of the graveyard had no remaining markers or headstones of any kind, but it appears that the 19th Century inhabitants of Enfield were aware that it was holy ground.
The Today with Pat Kenny show in RTÉ picked up on my article and pursued the issue. The upshot was that Pat Wallace, then Director of the National Museum agreed to return the remains of the babies. In a very moving ceremony, our parish priest interred the remains in an angels plot in our graveyard at Jordanstown Church. The entire congregation attended the burial, which indicated how strongly people felt about the issue. Not only had the remains been rescued from storage, but the babies were buried on consecrated ground and a much earlier wrong was righted.
That took place in 2009, but I mention it now because of a small development in the story. Meath County Council runs a ‘Pride of Place’ competition annually that includes a church and churchyard category. This year the theme was ‘History in Bloom’ and parishioner Terry Cooper undertook to co-ordinate our parish’s entry.
Organising several people to contribute different props and plants, she arranged a tribute to Scaruppa and the people buried there. Wild plants specific to the locality, a painting of the site and appropriate tools and utensils of the Iron Age were all included in a beautiful arrangement on the altar. Outside at the angels plot, more trees and plants native to the site were added.The entry won third prize in the competition.
It reminded me once again of how deeply felt it is within people that burial is a sacred issue. It’s a human instinct that has manifested itself across the world and throughout time. Whatever the primitive reasons for excluding unbaptised babies from main graveyards, in modern times we understand that practice was wrong and should be retrospectively righted.
There are many people who feel the same. In a neighbouring parish, one family pursued the issue and had a local Cillín consecrated.
I think this policy should be repeated across the country.
In addition, I think we need to pursue the National Museum about the fate of the thousands – and I mean tens of thousands – of remains removed from burial grounds to facilitate construction. Individuals can find it difficult to succeed with bureaucracies, so perhaps it requires collective action by bishops. The categorisation of these remains as objects of research contradicts every concept of decent burial.
The Church does death well and ensuring a fitting – and final – resting place for these souls would be a just cause.