Why do we exhume saints’ bodies and preserve their relics?

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Deacon David Keene holds the handle and hinges of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s coffin during the exhumation of his remains at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy on Dec. 10, 2016. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

Deacon David Keene is a canon lawyer who serves as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, but he also holds a doctorate in archeology and is an expert in the exhumation of human remains. Before he retired, federal, state, county and local officials regularly called him when remains were found and needed to be preserved or relocated.

The archdiocese called on him to conduct the exhumation of the remains of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton in 2016. He also led the 2021 exhumation of Father Patrick Ryan, whose canonization cause is underway in the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee. 

He recently sat down with editor Joyce Duriga to talk about the church’s history of preserving relics of saints and the exhumation of Father Tolton.

Chicago Catholic: You recently became a canon lawyer and your dissertation was about the recovery of human remains as part of canonization causes. The church has a rich history of preserving human remains of saints for veneration. Would you share some of that history?

Deacon David Keene: In the early church, when martyrs died, as we know from much of our early history, people would flock often to the graveyards or to where bodies were buried and would set up shrines of various types. And so from the very earliest times, we’ve held these bodies as unique because essentially these are the bodies of people who are now in the Divine Presence, who are now in heaven. In many ways, they have one foot in heaven and one foot here on earth. 

Chicago Catholic: How did the church develop its process of retaining relics? And why did we start distributing them to various churches and shrines for veneration?

Keene:  I think everyone needs to realize that, first of all, real relics are body parts, some parts of the body. Though over the centuries, it has expanded out to pieces of cloth or other objects that have touched the body.

We separated them out as time went on and as Christianity spread through Europe, it became more and more difficult for people in the outlying territories to get to the places where the relics were. 

So the church began separating them out so more people would have access to relics. We have numerous accounts of people being healed because these relics have been shipped to various places.

Chicago Catholic: Do we still separate pieces of bones for modern day saints and share them around the world?

Keene: I have many people who ask me, “Why are we doing this? Isn’t it a bit gruesome for us to be engaged in this kind of activity in the 21st century?” One response that I like to give is, “Well, your observations are correct, but we still do this because harvesting the relics or taking pieces of the relics from bodies of individuals who will be in the near future declared a saint is such a part of our heritage, such a part of our history.

It is kind of interesting how even today the primary reason a person becomes a saint is because they have performed a miracle, that someone has been healed. This concept of healing is so deep in Christianity. In fact, we have Gospel stories of healings. 

It’s easy for the average Catholic to misunderstand, but relics are not talismans. They’re not charms. They are the actual remains of an individual and they should be respected and treated with reverence as we would the remains of any human.

Chicago Catholic: So there’s a funny story on how you got recruited to exhume Father Tolton’s remains.

Keene: It is a funny story because I was already a deacon and I was doing consulting work for the Cook County Sheriff’s Police on a project. And it just so happens that one day the detective that I worked with on a lot of cases called me and said, “You know, I got a call from the director of the Catholic Cemeteries here in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was telling me about needing to exhume a body, and they thought that they needed an archaeologist because they were unsure whether the cemetery people could handle what they might uncover.”

As the cemetery director was explaining this, the detective said, “Well, you guys have a deacon in the Archdiocese of Chicago who is an archaeologist and who does this for us all the time.”

Chicago Catholic: Why do we exhume the remains for canonization causes?

Keene: Many people mistakenly think that it’s done as part of the evidence that an individual was alive. And that may have been true 1,500 years ago, where you needed evidence. But today, we pretty much have all the evidence we need in the written documents about an individual. 

It really very much is that we need the relics. We need to be able to have these relics available to us for healing purposes. 

Chicago Catholic: Can you talk about Father Tolton’s exhumation?

Keene: With Father Tolton, it was a very cold December day. The exhumation was to take place on Saturday, but we had to prepare the grave the day before. He was deeper than we thought because they had buried him at one level, but years later, they built up a big mound over the section. Other priests are buried there too.

So it took a while to remove all the excess dirt and, fortunately, there was nobody buried to his right or left. We were able to essentially remove the dirt from three graves so we could approach his grave from the side.

I had explained to people that, if at all possible, we want to be at chest level when we’re removing any human remains. We want to be able to catch everything and see everything we need to see.

We began to remove the excess dirt off the top of him and slowly expose his skeleton, because the wood from that coffin was all gone. But it is a slow process. We use hand tools, especially with human remains, because bones are brittle. 

Chicago Catholic: When you uncovered his remains you were going to wash them, but you couldn’t, right?

Keene: He was too brittle. It was kind of a sandy clay soil, but his bones were really pretty much being returned to the earth. The earth was taking him. It seemed that way to me as I was taking his bones out and handing them to the people six feet above me to a place on the table to reassemble the skeleton. 

As I was taking him out, I remarked to him that I was sorry. He looked so peaceful, and he was clearly being returned to Mother Earth where most of humanity ends up. I did say I was sorry and that “we’re calling you back into service.”

Chicago Catholic: What did the exhumation mean to you? 

Keene: It was a deeply, deeply moving experience. Working on an excavation is like doing any kind of job. You’re preoccupied, but I got this overwhelming feeling that this was something extremely special, extraordinary. I felt a real personal tie to Tolton. I still have that.


  • saints
  • father augustus tolton

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