NPR reports that a Swiss company is one of several firms offering the bereaved the chance to transform their loved ones’ ashen remains into diamonds as postmortem keepsakes. In three months’ time, using the standard industrial techniques to create synthetic diamonds, the company will turn a loved one’s ashes into gemsup to nine of them per body. Some clients have been known to set the diamonds as jewelry. Gems are decidedly more beautiful than ashes, after all, most of them sparkling with a blue tint owing to the minute amount of boron in human bones.
These tokens might be described as a loved one’s “relics,” but the similarity that suggests to older practices isn’t as strong as we might think. Diamonds have a certain hygienic quality to them besides being indestructible and perduranttwo qualities we wish upon mortal life. And it is precisely that wishing, that refusal to face facts, that is the problem.
Europe’s bone churches and sometimes ghoulish reliquaries remind us of an age that considered it wise to face death head-on. Catherine of Siena’s mother was surely twisted inside when she witnessed her daughter’s detached head processed in reliquary through the narrow streets of her Tuscan hometown, held aloft by her spiritual director in a dense procession of devotees. But death they confrontedno evasions here. Her head remains in its gilded case in the Dominican church in Siena, her wrinkled, blackened right thumb encased in a reliquary nearby.
Relics transmit their value by pointing to what was once present but isn’t whole anymore; their grotesquery renders clear the frailty of saints, their unaltered decay pointing to the eventual resurrection of the dead. Catherine’s reliquary has yet to be retouched for appearances; it’s entirely unsanitized and certainly not a gem, but in a way still fits with the Italian axiom for decorumbella figura.
Ashes becoming diamonds recalls a new, perhaps pagan, form of re-enchantmentthe kind that used to haunt Christendom and addle reformers. Charles Taylor described it as an era where “meanings are not only in minds, but can reside in things, or in various kinds of extra-human but intra-cosmic subjects.” Relics were paradigm cases of power residing in things. But while Christianity has not moved entirely away from relics, it has sharpened the distinction between the material and the spiritual, ensuring relics of the deceased are not thought to be magic objectsor jewels.