Creepy Corner: The Incorruptibles

No decomposition, no decay, no problem.
Publish date:
May 28, 2015
death, religion, catholic church, creepy corner, saints, mystery

There are a few things I really liked about Catholic school.

I liked wearing a uniform. I would go to sleep in boxers and my nearly threadbare, super soft, uniform shirt and when my alarm went off at 6:30am (any other fool take a "zero hour" class?) I'd mindlessly throw on my plaid skirt, and drag my ass to school.

I liked all the days off, or "Holy Days of Obligation." There was a period of time during my junior year that my classmates and I went nearly two months without a full week of school.

And lastly, I liked all the talk of religious mysteries. While I might have dozed through discussions of "living the Commandments" or "Hell and You (Louise): a Primer" (no shade on the Catholics out there, I was a lackluster student and dozed through physics, chemistry, statistics, government, etc. too), I perked up when my theology classes took a turn toward how the Church regarded death, relics, miracles, and the like.

Catholic or not, with an institution as old as the Catholic Church, some fascinating (and frightening) stuff has gone down throughout the ages.

My favorite topic was, and still is, the incorruptibles.

Who might they be?

Hold onto your apron, Alice, I suspect some of you are going to fall down a rabbit hole deeper than the crypt at St. Peter's Basilica.

The incorruptibles, are saints whose corpses have "miraculously" survived the ravages of time. Despite being many days, weeks, months, even years dead, the body of an incorruptible keeps its pliability and undecayed state without any help from mummification or embalming techniques (supposedly).

Many incorruptible corpses are described as looking as if they are just sleeping. Witnesses say that their skin retains color, handlers say the bodies remain flexible, and on some occasions the bodies are said to bleed post-mortem.

To quote Elizabeth Harper, from The Order of the Good Death blog, "At its core, incorruptibility only means that the body was left in a state that should have lead to putrification, or the liquefaction of guts, but didn’t." (If you're unclear on what happens after you die, check out this article here for the "breakdown" — FASCINATING but not for the faint-of-heart.)

For much of the Catholic Church's canonizing history, incorruptibility was recognized as grounds for considering an individual holy, and a candidate for beatification, or sainthood. A saint's body does not have to be incorrupt to be canonized, but very few officially recognized incorruptibles have not been canonized. (This is of course excluding all the preserved bodies around the world that were not discovered by Catholics, or brought to the attention of He Who Makes the Incorruptible Call AKA the Pope.)

However, the Catholic Church has largely turned away from incorruptibility. While it was previously believed (and in some religious circles, fiercely still is) that an incorruptible was evidence of an individual's holiness, and God choosing to spare the soul's earthly vessel from mortal decay, SCIENCE has offered some evidence to the contrary.

Take St. Margaret of Cortona. Called in by the Vatican, pathologist Ezio Fulcheri of the University of Genoa examined the seemingly incorruptible body of St. Margaret in the late 20th century.

After taking an oath "to respect the saint's remains, to take nothing, and to tell the truth about his findings," Fulcheri was allowed to move the 13th century corpse from its reliquary and examine it.

At first look, the body appeared to be intact and indeed incorrupt. But upon lifting St. Margaret's dress (an invasion to her modesty formerly avoided) Fulcheri found long incisions on her legs, as well us incisions on her chest and abdomen — all in keeping with embalming practices.

It turned out that St. Margaret had been embalmed. Upon further research, Fulcheri and his team found that upon her death "'The people [of Cortona] asked the Church to embalm her,'...But over the centuries that fact had been lost." Due to this faulty record keeping, and the absence of a proper pre-canonization examination, St. Margaret was deemed to be an incorruptible.

Fulcheri went on to find evidence that other incorruptible saints had also been embalmed. "Saint Clare of Montefalco, Blessed Margaret of Metola, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Bernardine of Siena, and Saint Rita of Cascia," were all found to be preserved in similar fashions. The telltale sweet smell of many incorruptibles — formerly thought to indicate the body's state of grace — being the result of the corpse being treated with plants and herbs used in old embalming practices.

Many saints' bodies were far from "untouched" by human hands before being deemed incorruptible. In the case of St. Clare of Montefalco, her body was cut into, possibly to harvest some of her innards as relics, as well as to see her heart. Evidence of cardiac disease in her heart was seen as "the outstretched body of Christ on the cross."

St. Zita of Lucca, Italy was another kind of incorruptible that Fulcheri examined. When St. Zita's body held no evidence of embalming like St. Margaret, Fulcheri said, "She is a very beautiful mummy...perhaps the best mummy I know of among the saints." Yes, St. Zita was just that, a mummy.

In the 13th century, St. Zita's body was interred in a vault underneath the floor of a San Frediano church. According to Fulcheri, such burial conditions had the effect of mummification on St. Zita's body. Sealed away from many decay-causing elements, and in a cool environment that stayed "a few degrees below the threshold most favorable to bacterial growth," St. Zita and those like her underwent a natural process of mummification.

Of course, not all bodies sealed in church vaults remained incorrupt. Depending where the body was located in the vault would dictate how preserved they would be. When potential saints' bodies were exhumed, being incorrupt was taken as a sign of holiness.

Once removed from their initial resting places, many of the incorruptibles' bodies did start to decompose. Leathery skin, dark spots, shriveling — in many cases acid or wax was applied to the face and body of the individual, helping to "maintain" the incorruptible nature of the saint.

While incorruptibles were, and still are, treated to keep their appearance, their status as an incorruptible holds. Human interference can be pointed to, like exposing the body to "bad air" or improper handling.

St. Paula Frassinetti at St. Onofria, the Dorothean motherhouse in Rome, is an incorruptible who underwent an acid treatment to preserve her after decades of remaining incorrupt. Though the acid damaged her skin, and she has shown signs of decomposition, St. Paula is still considered an incorruptible.

To the best of my knowledge, being an "incorruptible" is not an all or nothing thing. In the eyes of the Church, an individual may be called "incorruptible" if, "the human body is not subjected to the natural process of decomposition after death, and is suspended from decay either temporarily or permanently through the Divine Will of God." So by that rationale, not all incorruptibles must stay incorruptible forever, and "partial incorruptibility" (as mentioned by Elizabeth Harper) is a real thing.

As you can probably guess, it's all very controversial. To the faithful, OF COURSE science has to swoop in and try to pull the plug on all the saintly good times. To skeptics, the idea of an incorruptible might sound like code for "religious mummy."

Preserved by the hand of God or by the hand of man, the incorruptibles are a glimpse at a life gone by. Separated only by a pane of glass, you can look at the face of a person who saw, felt, and experienced a life we will never understand; maybe even the kind of faith we are far too cynical to understand.

Honestly, I can see both sides. And while I fall on the side of science with this one (you win this round, you scoundrel!), I can certainly understand the power of the incorruptibles.

What do you think? Are you on Team Science? Team Supernatural? Team ???

Have any of you actually seen an incorruptible?