Rezori | Why bones remain sacred to us

A reburial of ancestors' bones that had been displaced in Portugal Cove reminds us of our attachment to ancient traditions, Azzo Rezori writes.
Portugal Cove reburies two-century-old bones that had been disturbed, reports Azzo Rezori 1:55

Here we were, on a grassy knoll above the rocky northern tip of Portugal Cove. About two dozen of us: members of the local town council and heritage committee, the scattered common resident, and the usual suspects from the media, including yours truly.

One of the Bell Island ferries passed by as we gathered around a shallow hole in the ground into which had been placed two white cardboard boxes containing what was left of 13 human skeletons.

Katie Harvey, the last one to handle the bones, described one partial and two complete skulls still with hair on them, a large leg bone, and all kinds of teeth.

We'd come to be part of and document the reburial of late 17th-century settlers who'd been bull-dozed out of their long-neglected graves by a housing development just up the hill. Everybody agreed putting them back in the ground was the right thing to do.

The alternative was to condemn the 200-year-old bones to anonymous storage. And is that any way to treat what could very well have been ancestors to more than half a dozen local families?

You could sense the feeling of accomplishment. We took care of and honoured the bones of our own, made up for the indignity they'd been put through.

The disposal of dozens of caribou carcasses at a Labrador dump drew criticism last week from the Innu Nation. (CBC )

And yet, the day before we heard the grand chief of the Innu Nation lament the dumping of 55 confiscated caribou carcasses as an affront to his people's culture, and down here people snickered and entertained each other with the question, "What's he going on about now?"

Sacred bones, that's what.

Not the bones you find on the edge of a parking lot where another carload of hungry mouths has demolished another bucket of what used to come under the brand of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

No, the real thing.

I remember a trip to Davis Inlet when it was still on the go and wondering what all the caribou bones and antlers were doing on the roofs of their houses. An outsider walking through Catholic country, say rural Bavaria, might ask a similar question. What's with all the roadside crosses and the same dead man hanging from them?

It all depends on what different people from different cultures consider sacred.

Different interpretations

Bones have been sacred for as long as humans have been trying to figure out what to do with them. So I Googled 'sacred bones'.

First up was Sacred Bones Records of Brooklyn. They record alternative music so cool, you know they've got something special going.

Next was the Sacred Bones Society, a biker club in the United States. Its founder was an ex-military man involved in repatriating the bones of U.S. soldiers killed in the Second World War. Many of the society's members look like badasses with their biker beards, but with their kind of heritage I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Things did get darker with the third hit. It took me into the world of the Yale University-based Order of Skull & Bones, its powerful members known as bonesmen (former U.S. president George Bush was one of them), and its vision of the New World Order, which some conspiracy theorists equate with the mission to bring about the global reign of the Antichrist. Reading on, I ran into the Thule Society of early 20th-century Germany which paved the ideological way for Adolf Hitler and his madness.

All in the name of sacred bones.

In Tibet the monks drank whatever warmed their high-altitude bellies out of bowls made from human skulls to honour the dead. In ancient Korea, having sacred bones meant you belonged to the highest rank of society. In Hollywood movies you're sure to end up with a poltergeist in your house if you build it over old graves.

We sang a psalm for the bones of the Portugal Cove settlers. I imagine the last the bones of the Labrador caribou heard was the roar of whatever engine was used to deliver them to the silence of the dump.

Silence can be sacred as well, but I don't think it was meant to be in this case. Some bones, it seems, just don't count.