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incorruptible body

An incorruptible body is a whole human body or part of a human body that allegedly does not decay after death because of some supernatural power giving it immutability.

The Catholic Church claims there are many incorruptible bodies and that they are divine signs of the holiness of the persons whose bodies they used to be. Perhaps, but they are more likely signs of careful or lucky burial, combinedTeresa of Avila in ecstacy by Bernini (1645-1652) with ignorance regarding the factors that affect rate of decay. Some alleged cases of incorruptibility border on the piously fraudulent. For example, a television program showed a corpse in a case of a very lifelike woman the narrator said was the preserved body of St. Teresa of Avila who died in 1582. The corpse was actually that of St. Bernadette Soubirous, who died in 1879. A photo of her corpse can be seen on the cover of a book called The Incorruptibles, which claims the body has been "preserved intact since 1879 without embalming or other artificial means." Actually, the face and hands that look so real in the photo are made out of wax. The wax was added because the face was "emaciated" when the body was first exhumed (Nickell 1993: 92). Perhaps St. Bernadette's corpse should be moved to Madame Tussauds.

Some of these alleged saintly incorruptibles have exuded a sweet odor when exhumed. The faithful take this as a sign of divine intervention; the knowledgeable take it as a sign of embalming fluids and ointments.

In addition to numerous saints whose various body parts are kept in reliquaries and venerated by the faithful as proof of life after death or some god's existence or some such thing, there are secular examples that are equally dramatic. For example, the severed head of King Charles I of England was exhumed after 165 years and according to the royal surgeon Sir Henry Halford 

The complexion of the skin was dark and discolored. The forehead and temples had lost little or nothing of their muscular substance; the cartilage of the nose was gone; but the left eye, in the first moment of exposure, was open and full, though it vanished almost immediately: and the pointed beard, so characteristic of this period of the reign of King Charles, was perfect. [The head] was quite wet, and gave a greenish-red tinge to paper and to linen which touched it. The back part of the scalp . . . had a remarkably fresh appearance. The hair was thick . . . and in appearance nearly black. . . .*

The preserved head was due to accident and had more to do with how it was buried at St. George's Chapel in Windsor than to any special holiness of Charles I.

In 1952, there was a well-publicized case of an Indian Hindu in California who entered mahasamdhi and whose body, it was claimed, seemed incorruptible. Paramahansa Yogananda was the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, which claims that

On March 7, 1952, Paramahansa Yogananda entered mahasamadhi....His passing was marked by an extraordinary phenomenon. A notarized statement signed by the Director of Forest Lawn Memorial-Park testified: "No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death....This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one....Yogananda's body was apparently in a phenomenal state of immutability."

The statement of the director of Forest Lawn, Harry T. Rowe, is accurate, but incomplete. Mr. Rowe also mentioned that he observed a brown spot on Yogananda's nose after 20 days, a sign that the body was not "perfectly" preserved. In any case,  the SRF's claim that lack of physical disintegration is "an extraordinary phenomenon" is misleading. (One wonders how much digging into the mortuary annals they did. Very little, I imagine.) The state of the yogi's body is not unparalleled, but common. A typical embalmed body will show no notable desiccation for one to five months after burial without the use of refrigeration or creams to mask odors. According to Jesus Preciado, who has been in the mortuary business for thirty years, "in general, the less pronounced the pathology [at the time of death], the less notable are the symptoms of necrosis." Some bodies are well-preserved for years after burial (personal correspondence, Mike Drake). Some, under extraordinary conditions, are well-preserved for hundreds, even thousands, of years. 

Immutable human bodies are ultimately cases of apparent immutability. All human bodies and body parts disintegrate with time unless they are preserved with embalming fluids or waxes, or by special conditions suchOtzi the Iceman of Bolzano as alkaline soil, absence of oxygen, bacteria, worms, heat, light, and the like. There are many cases of such burials and bodies, known as adipocere. Some corpses are "saponified (in which burial in lime-impregnated soil converts the body fat into a hard soap that resists putrefaction)" (Nickell 1996). And some corpses are preserved by nature, like that of Otzi the Iceman of Bolzano.

See also mahasamadhi, miracle, and St. Januarius.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Cruz, Joan Carroll. (1977). The Incorruptibles: A Study of the Incorruption of the Bodies of Various Catholic Saints and Beati. Tan Books & Publishers.

Nickell, Joe. Looking For A Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures (Prometheus Books, 1993).

Pringle, Heather. The Mummy Congress : Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead (Hyperion, 2001).

Quigley, Christine. Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century (McFarland & Company, 1998).

websites

Incorruptibility: Miracle or Myth? (Investigator No. 45 1995 November) Harry Edwards

Examining Miracle Claims by Joe Nickell

Mummy News - James M. Deem

Bog Body Stories - James M. Deem

"The Composition of Adipocere" by R. F. Ruttan and M. J. Marshall. (From the Department of Chemistry, McGill University, Montreal, January 1917.)

Adipocere Links

Adipocere History

The “Incorruptible” Hambo Lama Itigelov by Brian Dunning

Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov

Sokushinbutsu

Sokushinbutsu, or How To Mummify Yourself in 4 Easy Steps

news story

Exhuming the Truth by Ron Russell

Last updated 24-Jan-2014

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