Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
April 16th, 2009

Death Becomes Them

Meeting the incorruptible saints whose bodies seem to defy decay

 
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incorruptibles-inside

One evening last month, while surfing YouTube, I stumbled across a five-part slideshow on the incorrupt bodies of saints. Having once been a soul mate to television’s ghoulish Wednesday Addams, I launched “Part One,” expecting to get halfway through before my maturing tastes demanded I resume searching for the clip where Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, humiliates the geeks at the Star Wars premier.

To my surprise, the spectacle held me in thrall. In every dead face, sanctity intersected with human nature in some unique and memorable way. St. Jean-Marie Vianney’s fine features hinted at a painful sensitivity. With her mouth half open, St. Veronica Giuliani looked as though she were savoring one of her ecstatic visions. The puppy fat on the face of the child Beata Imelda Lambertini spoke of youthful good health and a life unexpectedly cut short.

But some of the other holy cadavers looked distinctively, well, cadaverous. With skin the color and texture of fine leather and both nose and lips gone, St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli looked like any of the mummies I’d seen in the British Museum. Seated upright, her face and hands blackened, St. Catherine of Bologna looked as though she’d paid a terrible price for nodding off with a lighted cigarette.

How incorrupt did an Incorruptible have to be, anyway? I wondered. Physical decay had been on my brain in the weeks since my thirty-seventh birthday — weeks I’d spent playing hooky from the gym. In the softening of my deltoids, I felt the promise of my own physical decay. Any formula for eternal youth sounded good — even goodness.

The Incorruptibles

So, I began checking around on the Internet, which turned out to be a minefield of misinformation. Saintly incorruptibility is an obscure doctrine; only one researcher, Joan Carroll Cruz, has studied it systematically. Once Cruz’s book, The Incorruptibles: A Study of the Incorruption of the Bodies of Various Catholic Saints and Beati, arrived from Amazon, I began to appreciate the phenomenon for its strangeness, its resistance to precise definition, and its knack for confounding expectations.

For starters, the so-called Incorruptibles follow their own schedule. They may last for centuries, or only for decades. St. Francis Xavier’s body endured multiple exhumations, translations — that’s Church jargon for reburial in a different grave — and dismemberments at the hands of relic-hunters. For over a century and a half, its intact state continued to astonish examiners. Then, at some point, it dried out, shrank somewhat, and mysteriously lost one of its toes. St. Charbel Makhlouf exuded a bloodlike fluid, reputed to have healing properties, for over fifty years after his death. But when examiners re-opened his casket in 1967, they found he had fallen away to bones and gristle.

According to Pope Benedict XIV, who spelled out the standards in 1734, an incorruptible body must be lifelike — in flexibility, color and “freshness” — and must remain so for many years after exhumation. But these criteria seem to be at least as flexible as the bodies they apply to. Just because a body has escaped putrefaction doesn’t mean it will look primed to sit up and start chanting matins. Even the skin of non-decaying corpses turns dark from exposure to oxygen, and draws tight across the bones. Although such a body’s state of preservation, which often extends to its organs, is impressive from a scientific point of view, my layman’s gut response is: Wow, St. So-and-So is very, very dead.

Just because a body has escaped putrefaction doesn’t mean it will look primed to sit up and start chanting matins… my layman’s gut response is: Wow, St. So-and-So is very, very dead.

All natural or wax?

When confronted with a body that is technically incorrupt, but not very aesthetically pleasing, the Church has alternated between two approaches: 1) go all natural; 2) wax. The bodies of Saint Maria Magdalena de Pazzi and Saint Eustochia Calafato could serve as poster children for the laissez faire look. Although discolored and drawn, both faces show real character. Picturing them alive going about the daily business of sainthood doesn’t tax the imagination at all.

By contrast, the wax-covered faces of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney and Saint Bernadette Soubirous look exactly the way I would want incorrupt saints to look: like perfect sleeping beauties. But upon learning of the boost they got, I couldn’t help feeling let down — more on the saints’ behalves than my own. Reports of miracles draw humorless myth busters like flies. It seems terribly unfair to put any saint in a position where an asterisk might attach itself to his name.

More confusing still, the relics of some saints — including some former Incorruptibles, and others who never made the cut to begin with — rest in wax effigies that look more body-like than real bodies. In fact, the faces of St. Veronica Giuliani and Blessed Imelda Lambertini, which both struck me with their expressiveness, belong to wax mannequins.

Some observers, such as Bolognese pathologist Ezio Fulchieri, argue that incorruptibility results from natural factors, most often burial in an oxygen-free environment. But that explanation fails to account for those saintly bodies that remained intact despite burial in damp, oxygen-rich graves, and in some cases, exposure to quicklime and other corpses.

Personally, I’m happy to view incorrupt bodies through eyes of faith. The Incorruptibles are wonderfully quirky critters. They remain preserved for just as long as they like, and rot away when they decide their work is done. They remind us of inevitable death, while tantalizing us with the possibility of eventual resurrection. They command our veneration, even as they challenge us to unlock their secrets. If that’s not God’s style, I don’t know what is.

 
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The Author : Max Lindenman
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2008.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

    i enjoyed the perceptive and insightful article on incorrupt bodies of the Saints and their various states of incorruptibility.
    I appreciate your straightforward manner and your dry matter-of fact humour is refreshing and keeps things on the level – a sense of humour which I think the very saints spoken of would have shared too or at the least appreciated!
    Added to this Im glad you are not limiting your views by lacxk of faith but keep your mind and heart open to these amazing miracles.
    Finally, I have no doubts about incorruptibility. I think it’s perfectly natural ie SUPERnatural and in fact the way we should have been as originally intended by God and in fact it is corruption that is in fact anti-natural but necessary due to sin. Thanks for the article Max!

  • Julie Hagan

    Yes, Katherine, and scripture is *such* a reliable source of information — not! Don’t you realize that the whole myth of virgin birth is based on a mistranslation? Do try to think rationally.

    • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

      can you explain more about these mistranslations? When they occurred,by whom? And why would they make it up?

      • http://www.facebook.com/juliehagan.bloch.1 Julie Hagan Bloch

        Hi, Adam
        I just noticed this query from you.
        Why would they make things up? To delude the credulous, for
        one thing. And it seems to be working.

        Here’s a bit of info, borrowed from Nathan G., who expresses
        it more succinctly than I would likely have done:
        “The text of the verse in Isaiah 7:14 is commonly mistranslated as “A virgin shall conceive and …” The original Hebrew rendered as “virgin”
        actually means “young woman of marriageable age but not yet married”,
        without reference to her virginity (or otherwise).
        The mistranslation is usually attributed to the lack of a suitable word in
        Greek/Latin and hence into English. A better translation might, therefore, be “nubile young woman”
        nubile:
        Def: 1. Sexually attractive (referring to a
        young woman). 2. Ready or suitable for marriage (referring to a young woman).

  • Katherine

    To Julie: Yes, “the way things work” is good enough and even celebrated in Catholicism. Incorruptibility is not a required belief to be Catholic, nor is a devotion to any saint including Mary. The significance of these miracles, incorruptibility and virgin birth, are that they are predicted in scripture as signs of holiness.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    I’m with you, there. If a body hasn’t decayed, there’s a scientific reason for it. It’s likely that the uncommonly well-preserved corpses are simply exhibiting signs of natural biological phenomena of which we are just not aware yet. And really, a body is supposed to decay. That’s part of the way things work. Why do some people find it necessary that natural laws are subverted in order to have a religious experience? Isn’t the natural world, in all its wonder and complexity, good enough? It’s like saying, “The world that was made by the Creator isn’t good enough as it is; we need some of those natural laws to fail for our religion to be any good.” Like the idea of “virgin birth”. Come on, now. Isn’t the way it normally works good enough? Why do you feel that a so-called “miracle” is necessary? If the basic ideas of a belief system aren’t strong enough on their own, no amount of miracle claiming is going to make it something worthy. It’d be like saying, “Here, we know our ideas are stupid, but look, we have miracles, so that makes it really good.” Everything is already part of God. Why pretend otherwise?

    • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

      If everything can be explained scientifically then we dont need a spiritual nature since all is material and nothing more.

      • http://www.facebook.com/juliehagan.bloch.1 Julie Hagan Bloch

        No, think about it. There are psychological states, emotional states, and who knows what else. Science is not limited to what can be touched with the hands. Think about quantum physics. To say that the scientific view is that “all is material” is to say that you don’t know much about science.

    • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

      Death/corruption is a punishment for sin both commuted(original) sin and personal sin. We were in fact created to never die. That’s my understanding of Catholicism and Genesis and the fall.

      • JuliePurple

        Hi, Adam It is purely by accident that I came across your postings here; I unsubscribed from this list months ago. The reason for this is that I realized, as Thomas Paine said so well, that “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead”.

        P. S. Death and corruption as a punishment for sin: so, why then do animals die? All those little bunny rabbits sure are dreadful little sinners, wouldn’t you say?

  • מיכאל

    I’m a hardened empiricist. It is totally IMPOSSIBLE for a deceased body not to decay–so I’m very confused.

  • gaaminepreet

    This suggests that science cann’t defy death. Incorruptible saints are like the GOD, they become part of god even after death. This part of incorruptibility is not seen in INDIA not because they don’t workship truly, but because dead body is burned after death as a religious tradition. This could be seen in INDIA possibly if religious tradition of burning would not have been there.
    GOD Bless everyone……

    • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

      As Catholics we believe in the possibility of physical resurrection and therefore encourage physical burial. It all stems from what one believes.
      Some incorrupt bodies were set on fire but survived…so it goes deeper – the person must have faith in the true God.

    • http://www.facebook.com/juliehagan.bloch.1 Julie Hagan Bloch

      We’re already part of God. Everything is.

      • Gaaminepreet Singh

        Yes indeed we and everything else is GOD creation. But complete dedication and linking of soul to GOD is what makes difference. That is why this instance of incorruptibility is seen among few. GOD bless everyone.

      • JuliePurple

        But Gaaminepreet, everything is already linked to god or
        whatever you want to call the life force.
        There is no logical connection between what you call connectedness and an apparent subversion of physics. (I
        say “apparent”, because it is likely that eventually science will determine the natural laws that operate under these circumstances.)

        In some cultures, a lack of much decay (and all of those
        bodies show *some* signs of decay) in a body is seen as a sign of evil. It’s the peculiar Western antipathy for Nature that sees apparent subversion of natural law as an indication of holiness.

        [And on a slightly different note, we don't really know what
        percentage of bodies show signs of being incorrupt. Most of the time, when we bury someone, we don't dig them up. I would really like to know the percentage of incorrupt bodies found from all of those that have been disinterred. And more, to know the life stories of ALL the incorrupt ones.]

        And I say again, why do you need apparent miracles to support your belief system?
        Is it because the facts need so much tweaking to be palatable?

      • Gaaminepreet Singh

        Thank you julie for your views. If evil has supernatural powers(late decay) that doesn’t mean they are good. Stopping or slowing of body decay doesn’t necessarily means a symbol of dedication to GOD.

        A lot of great people or souls in different religions around the world died very early and have sacrificed their entire body to protect the truth.

        Slow body decay or lack of decay is not the only mark of connection to GOD, but could be one physical characterstic of dedicated and truthful souls body.

        Remember science cannot explain GOD. Because science needs evidence. Whereas, connection to GOD or full faith in GOD can only happen in individuals whom GOD blesses himself or herself.

        GOD created this world and given us human being small brain. We employ our cleverness to find evidence of GOD, using his gift(Brain). However, connection to GOD can only happen when GOD blesses someone. We should only try to serve all humanity. We should not try to understand this world, but should try to serve all. Leave rest to GOD.

        It is very difficult to understand this!

        GOD bless everyone…

      • JuliePurple

        Hi, Gaaminepreet
        Thanks for your views. I think perhaps you missed the point I was trying to make. That point is: why is it considered holy to manifest an apparent subversion of physics and natural law? (And I say “apparent” because I believe that we simply haven’t yet discovered the science behind the supposed “miracle”.)

        And seriously, did you really think about what you were saying when you wrote “we should not try to understand this world”? Did you mean that we should not try to
        discover the cures for diseases or figure out new ways to conserve energy or learn better ways to try to preserve the environment or anything?

        You said “science cannot explain god because science needs evidence”. Exactly. Evidence. Proof. Something besides myth, heresay, superstition, circumstantial
        evidence, wishful thinking, and just simply pretending. Remember, many psychotic, psychopathic individuals also “heard the voice of god” or were “doing god’s will”. I’m not saying that all individuals who make that claim are mentally deranged; I’m just saying that that’s not an indication of reliability. Likewise, just because someone died for a cause or belief does not prove that the cause or belief in question is laudable. Think about suicide bombers. They died for their beliefs, too.
        And yes, things may be difficult to understand. That doesn’t mean we get to make things up to suit what we would like to believe.

      • Gaaminepreet Singh

        Julie with humbleness I want to say that : “We should not try to understand why this world or life is being created by GOD, and we cann’t understand this by science”. I never meant that we should not try to understand and explore the cure for disease. Indeed science must progress in every feild.

        But we can never understand the creator by scientific means. I firmly believe in science. But I must admit science has lot of questions which are practically unanswerable through it.

        GOD bless everyone.

      • JuliePurple

        You said that we should not try to understand why this world is created (and so forth)… Why not? I’m really curious as to why you think that.( Or do you believe something like Christopher Morley said, “Where it is a duty to worship the sun it is pretty sure to be a crime to
        examine the laws of heat.”)

        And actually, if you do a little research, science has found out quite a bit, though not all, about how this world and life has been created (or has evolved), but
        it keeps getting closer. See, that’s the thing about science. If it doesn’t know the answer, it admits it, and keeps looking.

        I believe that there is the possibility that god exists, though what is meant by “god” is a good question, as well, and the subject for a different discussion. But so far, it’s only a possibility; it’s not proven yet. But how
        did you come to the conclusion that you have the right to determine what may be challenged? Isn’t truth important? What about intellectual honesty?
        And by the way, we’re getting WAY off the track of the topic of the article! Just saying…

      • Gaaminepreet Singh

        No religion or holy book in the world advises anyone to worship sun. Please don’t twist or mould facts for your benefit.

        The topic of this article “Incorruptible saints” is a symbol of religious faith. Faith can be in science, and can be in GOD. As I said we don’t have right to challenge anybody faith.

        GOD bless.

      • JuliePurple

        Oh, for heaven’s sake, Gaminepreet, the quote about the sun is a *metaphor*! Do you understand what a metaphor is? And you never did answer: WHY do you think one should not try to understand? I really am curious. Why would you think that?
        And you can say it as many times as you like but that doesn’t give you the right to tell someone else what they may challenge. And for the record, I’m challenging your intellect, your powers of reasoning. That’s part of the query regarding intellectual honesty. Whether you have faith or not is not something that I am concerned about. But please do try to keep to facts. I don’t have “faith” in science; that’s not what science is about. It’s about questioning and evidence and proof. It’s about being willing to learn, even if new discoveries and PROOF contradict previously held views.

  • leo

    oh…. yes its true that some of their incorrupt bodies decays after many years but..

    the exception happened for st. cecilia who died maybe A.D something and found that her body was incorrupt in nearly 1500′s..

    another was st. germaine cousin some people threw a fluid on her body to increase its decomposition.. maybe they were anti-christ.. but then she reamins incorrupt..

    st. francis xavier wrapped his self around a fluid which can help to decompose his body quicker than normal before he died.. but still is incorrupt….

    i really love incorrupt saints..

  • Gayle

    I read the Incorruptibles in 8th gr. and have been fascinated with them ever since. It’s good to see someone else is too.

  • Bob

    An extremely erudite article. I found it both facinating and entertaining.

    • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

      Your reply succinctly expresses my intentions in elegant simplicity.

  • Sarah

    Super interesting! Thanks for this!

  • Kate

    How fascinating, Mr. Lindenman! Your amazing essay is written with such great detail and a profound curiosity which captures my attention and my soul.

    Thank you!

    • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

      He catches souls for his hobby and never releases them, lol!

  • Catherine

    I have read the Cruz book you mentioned and even used it as a TOUR GUIDE while I was living in Europe, just about 10 years ago. I have always been fascinated by the incorruptibles and lived just down the street from Saint Maria Magdalena de Pazzi in Florence, Italy. St. Catherine Laboure in Paris, at the Rue du Bac, is definitely worth seeing… In fact, I attended Mass there and found I was sitting on the “wrong” side, and never caught a glimpse of her. I stayed an extra 90 minutes, just to attend Mass again and sit on the “right” side, so I could pass by her during the Communion Procession! It was a wild day and an amazing experience… Thank you Mr. Lindenman for reminding me of my fondness for the incorruptibles.

  • Anne (my “saint’s name”)

    Thank you, Max Lindenman. It’s not every day one reads such a lively, witty article on faith–not to mention dead saints.

    You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy this essay.

  • Nick

    The incorruptibles soon become corrupted because the gift of incorruption relies on the saints’ holiness. As the saint so shared in Jesus’ suffering and life, so too he shall share in His reign and glory. Hence, only Mary has true incorruptibility. The Lord, in His Infinite Mercy and Wisdom, gives the gift of incorruptibility to the saint and to the entire Church and the whole world, as a sign of His power to raise men and a proof of His glorious Resurrection.

  • Mrs. Rene O’Riordan

    St. Cuthbert was also an incoruptable and was dragged around Scotland and England for hundreds of years to escape the Vikings or whatever warring factions were going on and then eventually buried in London. When the Protestant Revolutionaries looted Catholic properties they found Cuthbert’s body still intact! That was a big hint to them that they were going the wrong Way. I also find it amazing that there was absolutely nothing, nothing at all, not even a tooth, discovered in Cardinal John Henry Newman’s tomb. I think that was a miracle! – Blessings – Rene

    • adamxsmith@hotmail.com

      His tomb was empty? Body stolen? Wrong tomb?

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