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Exhumation explained to social media commentators: It’s Church tradition to bury bishop at cathedral


In August, a post circulated on social media about the exhumation of the remains of Bishop Anthony Butler who died 120 years ago, from the compound of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception located at Brickdam.

An article from Kaieteur News’ Sunday magazine The Waterfalls said that the post generated many comments and questions from concerned viewers as to the reason for “digging up” the bones of a dead bishop more than a century after he was “peacefully laid to rest,” to now place them within the walls of the church building.

Several commentators condemned the act as disrespectful to the dead while others raised concerns about the way in which the exhumation was done, the article reported.

The Waterfalls spoke to Cathedral Administrator Fr Joel Rathna who explained the reasoning behind the act was to move the remains of the dead bishop and place it under the main altar of the church.

According to Fr Rathna, the move was done in keeping with preservation of a century’s old Catholic tradition.

He told the news source it is customary for bishops to be buried in crypts (chambers) below the cathedrals they served. This crypt is at least six feet below the base of the main altar inside the Cathedral and acts as a burial site for the heads of the Church.

Fr Rathna noted that crypts are built to honour the practice of the Catholic Church. “This is a traditional practice done all over the world. Only bishops who served in that particular cathedral are worthy of being buried in its crypt. In fact, the word cathedral comes from a Latin term which means the seat of the bishop,” he said.

He noted that while many people viewed the exhumation as disturbing the rest of the dearly departed bishop, “For us in the Catholic tradition, it is an act of honour, to have his remains placed in the crypt alongside his other fellow bishops who served the Church faithfully as well.”

The priest explained too that the honorary burial was long overdue since the bishop died in 1901, long before the new Cathedral was built at the Brickdam location.

“The old church did not have a crypt so the bishop was buried under a tower in the churchyard, then in 1913 when the old church burned down and the new more modern cathedral was later erected, one which contained a crypt, the tradition of having the gravesite of the bishops inside the church building began here,” Fr Rathna said.

He explained that since then only Bishops Benedict Singh and Compton Galton have been buried in the crypt.

Fr Rathna said that about three years ago, it was brought to his attention that Bishop Butler’s gravesite was not located in the church and the decision was taken by the diocese to have his remains exhumed and placed within “his rightful final resting place”.

There were a series of consultations with the administrative arm headed by Bishop Francis Alleyne OSB of Georgetown. Bishop Alleyne has since lauded the efforts of those who played a role in bringing the exercise to fruition.

Approval for the exhumation had to first be granted by the Ministry of Health Environmental Unit, the Mayor and City Council (M&CC), and the office of the Commissioner of Police.

“When we started the process, we were not able to move forward because we needed the approval of the relevant authorities to have the body exhumed. That took us a while. Then we had to find someone to conduct the exercise which was another challenge,” Fr Rathna said.

Fr Rathna said that it took approximately two hours for the gravediggers to retrieve the remains of Bishop Butler. The exercise was conducted in the presence of the representatives of the Ministry of Health and the M&CC.

According to the priest, no concerns were raised over the safety measures used by the persons doing the exercise until after the exercise was done.

Following the successful exhumation, Fr Rathna said the remains of the bishop were placed in a small box where it remains until it is placed in the crypt of the cathedral.

“At such time, a small ceremony will be held in honour of the bishop before he is laid to rest,” the priest said.