The crypt in which Elvis Presley was first buried has been withdrawn from a Los Angeles auction after protests it should be kept as a shrine.
Fans argued on the Elvis Matters website: “Can you imagine visiting the crypt and spend a few moments of silence, while an unknown is buried there? If the crypt is still accessible for fans, that is.”
Other items up for auction included his personal telephone, a medallion, and “an X-ray of a karate injury.”
And people really want these things to the point of spending many thousands of dollars to take possession of them. In Catholic parlance, the phone and medallion would be considered “second class relics,” because they are things Elvis wore or touched.
We Catholics like relics. Bits of bone, locks of hair, squares of fabric from clothing, personal prayer books, and other physical remains of saints. It’s one of the things that non-Catholics think is weird about us (and I’ll bet a fair number of Catholics are spooked out by it too, for that matter).
And, in a way, I get that. Go into the Gesu in Rome and take a look at the skeletal remains of Francis Xavier’s hand in a display above the side altar in the right transept. Then walk across the nave to the little room to the right of the other transept’s side altar where literally hundreds of relics of Jesuit martyrs and saints—bones, mostly—are on display for veneration and prayer.
Even people who are not yet canonized, like Father Stanley Rother, who was murdered in Guatemala in 1981 by pro-Communist thugs for not abandoning the poverty-stricken indigenous flock he had shepherded since 1968 to their atheistic domination. His body returned to his Oklahoma home, but his heart was removed and buried where it always had been: the Guatemalan highlands.
The reason we like relics, though, is likely different. We don’t want them as mere keepsakes or reminders of the person or persons who made them special, though they are that. We also don’t want them as some sort of magical amulet that will imbue us with the powers of the deceased. That’s just weird. We want them as a spiritual connection between heaven and earth. We want them because they are intrinsically connected to a person or persons who made heaven manifest on earth. Someone who came to live in and share the love of Christ while still mucking about in the world with all its worldly allurements.
As the great St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), martyred at Auschwitz, said,
To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly to sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels: this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.
The saints did that, and since ours is an incarnational religion—God became man to redeem creation and restore it to its rightful glory—when a person, body, soul, and spirit, ascends to the lofty heights of sanctity while still on this side of the grave, the physical remains they leave behind when they do pass through death remain a spiritual connection between us and them.
Nothing is the merging of heaven and earth in the manner that the Blessed Sacrament is—that is the God-man literally enfleshed—but the reality of the sanctity of the saints imbues their earthly remains with a sanctity that we do well to remember, venerate, and associate ourselves with.
In civil society we maintain a remembrance of great (or at least influential) events and hallowed halls—Independence Hall, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg battlefield, the Alamo, Elvis’ empty tomb, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, etc.—but not because of a spiritual connection between earth and the heavens that lives and is eternally current; but rather as a connection between our time and the times and events past that formed who we are as a nation, and a people. This is all well and good—I love visiting those places and have frequently—but it’s not the ultimate. It points to the ultimate: it is a civil, secular manifestation of that human tendency to hang onto the past so we can understand, endure, make awesome the present and avoid mistakes in the future.
But, again, this is not the ultimate. The ultimate expression of this is in the relics we Catholics venerate of those who have gone before and who marked out the path to beatitude. Those who walked the dirty and rough paths of this world, seeing the face of Christ in those whom they meet, trusting joyfully in the providence of God in every situation they endured—whether happy or sorrowful, and awaiting with patience the “morning of eternity.”
So I’m glad people were upset that Elvis’ original tomb was almost sold to the highest bidder. Elvis’ impact on our culture was profound and means something to many people. If I’m ever in the Memphis area I may stop by and offer a prayer or two for Elvis and all those affected by his music, and maybe even stop by Graceland and offer a prayer where his remains now lie. But it wouldn’t come close to being within a few feet of the bones of St. Peter in the Scavi below the baldaccino in St. Peter’s