When the body of Pope John XXIII was dug up in March 2001, he was in good condition, despite having been dead for 37 years. The present pope decided his predecessor needed a new resting place to accommodate the large numbers of people who wanted to revere his tomb in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Furthermore, Pope John, son of peasants and known as “the people’s pope”, is on the road to sainthood; one of the preliminary steps in the process is for the potential saint’s body to be exhumed for suitable identification.
Although popes’ bodies are not fully embalmed, they are ‘preserved’ with formalin to prolong the period of public viewing. Funeral director Joseph Watts commented to the New York Daily News: “He was embalmed right away. It was done by doctors, nothing but the best, and he was placed in the perfect place, the Catacombs.” According to Watts, who has visited the tomb, the preservation of the pope’s body was probably the result of a number of factors. “The embalming fluid was formaldehyde-based with other chemicals… he was also in a triple-sealed casket… and that was in a marble crypt… There was no water or anything that could disintegrate [the body].” Vincenzo Pascali from the University of Rome said he doesn’t think Pope John’s preservation is unusual: “It’s more common than you might think. The body of the Holy Father was well protected. Oxygen couldn’t get into the coffin and any in there would have been used up very quickly… [in the construction of the caskets] they used materials like lead and zinc which oxidise and slow the decomposition process.”
With her usual reserve, the Catholic Church denied that there was anything miraculous about the preservation of the pope’s remains. The Vatican Information Service never used the words ‘miraculous’ or ‘incorrupt’ regarding the body of John XXIII. After the exhumation, the Vatican Information Service headlined its story with great caution, simply saying, “Body of Blessed John XXIII is Remarkably Well Preserved.” This is in keeping with the usual Catholic official policy which doesn’t rule out supernatural occurrences, but also doesn’t declare an event miraculous until every natural explanation is eliminated.
Because there have been many impeccable accounts of incorruptibility, many presumed saints were exhumed and re-interred. It soon became the custom to exhume all candidates for beatification or canonisation. Throughout the Middle Ages, churches vied for possession of incorrupt bodies, as they were a proven magnet for pilgrims (who, of course, brought offerings and donations). Despite its damp climate, mediæval Britain has nurtured a good number of saintly characters whose bodies didn’t decay, including Cuthbert, Werburgh, Waltheof and Guthlac. Amongst them were two royal sisters (Etheldreda and Withburga), a king (Edward the Confessor), a bishop (Hugh of Lincoln) and an archbishop of Canterbury (Alphege). At the Reformation, all their shrines were destroyed and the incorrupt body parts dispersed. When her shrine at Ely Cathedral was destroyed, the saintly Queen Etheldreda’s hand was preserved by a devout Catholic family. The still incorrupt hand was enshrined, some 400 years later, when a little Catholic Church was re-established in Ely. An apocryphal story relates how the present Queen, on a tour of the cathedral, met the crusty Irish priest of the little Catholic Church. She asked him if it wouldn’t be a ‘nice gesture’ to return the hand of St Etheldreda to the cathedral; he replied that it would be a nice gesture for her to return the cathedral to the Catholic church.
The accounts of saints’ bodies not decaying despite being buried for years continue to the present day. In her fascinating study The Incorruptibles (1977), Joan Carroll Cruz chronicles cases with the kind of credulous ‘objectivity’ for which Catholics are famous. The book abounds in amazing and gruesome details of preserved hearts, severed limbs, corpses that sit up and wink, and healing perfumes that seep from holy bones. She tells how the body of St Teresa of Avila didn’t rot even though it was buried in wet mud; and how the bodies of St Paschal Baylon, St Francis Xavier and St John of the Cross all remained fresh and intact despite being covered in sacks of quicklime for months. Cruz tells of Blessed Peter of Gubbio, a 14th century monk, and Venerable Maria Vela, a 17th century nun, whose voices were heard chanting with their brothers and sisters long after they were dead. St Clare of Montefalco, a holy nun from the 13th century, apparently declared to her sisters: “If you seek the cross of Christ, take my heart; there you will find the suffering Lord.” After her death, not only did her body remain incorrupt, but the sisters removed her heart and found, clearly imprinted on the cardiac tissue, figures representing a tiny crucifix complete with the five wounds of crucifixion.
Another extraordinary saint is Blessed Margaret of Metola. Margaret was a blind dwarf, hunchbacked and lame, but that didn’t stop her from living a life of heroic service to the poor. She died in 1330, but in 1558 her remains had to be transferred because her coffin was rotting away. At the exhumation, witnesses were amazed to find that like the coffin, the clothes had rotted, but Margaret’s crippled body hadn’t. With typical understatement, Cruz reports: “The body of Blessed Margaret, which has never been embalmed, is dressed in a Dominican habit, and lies under the high altar of the Church of St Domenico at Citta-di-Castello, Italy. The arms of the body are still flexible, the eyelashes are present, and the nails are in place on the hands and feet. The colouring of the body has darkened slightly and the skin is dry and somewhat hardened, but by all standards the preservation can be considered a remarkable condition, having endured for over six hundred and fifty years.”
It is easy enough to dismiss such stories as mediæval credulous nonsense, but two things make this untenable. First of all, the phenomena are among the most well-documented of any so-called miraculous occurrences. Among fortean ephemera, these prodigies are not only still visible, but the exhumations were witnessed with oaths and affidavits by ordinary working people as well as respectable professionals. Secondly, the accounts of incorruptible bodies are not merely mediæval; they are a part of Christian history from the first century right through to the 21st.
The two most amazing modern accounts are of St Bernadette (pictured above) and St Charbel Makhlouf. St Bernadette was the shepherd girl who saw the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes. She died in a convent at Nevers in 1879 and was buried in the chapel crypt. In 1909 a commission investigating her saintliness exhumed her body with the bishop and two doctors as official witnesses. They were joined by two stonemasons and two carpenters. All of them swore beforehand to tell the truth of their findings. They found that the saint’s body was incorrupt. A nun who had witnessed the burial 30 years before noted that the only change was that the dead nun’s habit was damp.
Bernadette was re-buried and exhumed again in 1919. As before, both civil and religious witnesses were gathered under oath. The doctors who examined the body wrote: “When the coffin was opened the body appeared to be absolutely intact and odourless… there was no smell of putrefaction and none of those present experienced any discomfort.” On a third exhumation in 1923, the body was found still to be in the same condition. At that point, the body was opened and the internal organs were found to be supple. After 46 years, the doctor reported, “the liver was soft and almost normal in consistency.”
St Charbel Makhlouf (pictured top of page), who died in 1898, was a Maronite monk from Lebanon. In his life, he seemed unremarkable except for his quiet and intense devotion. After his death, for 45 nights, strange lights appeared over his grave. Because 45 days is the traditional length of time for a body’s decomposition, the monastic authorities called for his exhumation. His body was found perfectly fresh, despite the fact that recent rains had reduced the cemetery to a quagmire and the body was found floating in a muddy pool. Charbel’s body was re-clothed and transferred to a wooden coffin, but a strange blood-like ‘oil’ kept exuding from his body… so much so that the clothes had to be changed twice a week. In 1927 – 29 years after his death – his still incorrupt body was examined and found to be totally flexible. It was then re-buried in a niche in the ancient abbey church. Pilgrims to the shrine in 1950 noticed liquid seeping from the tomb and the coffin was opened again. The body was still incorrupt but exuding the peculiar oily sweat; many miraculous cures have been attributed to this substance. The body remained incorrupt for 67 years, finally decaying in 1965.
Cruz reports no less than 102 stories of incorrupt bodies of Catholic saints. With so many supposedly incorrupt saints, it is no wonder the devotees of Pope John XXIII suspected that the preservation of his remains might be a sign from heaven. Although the Catholic authorities do not deny the possibility of miraculous preservation of bodies, neither do they place much stock in it. According to Rome, the strange phenomenon may confirm holiness but, on its own, the unnatural preservation of bodies does not, automatically, prove holiness. The authorities, quite sensibly, are more interested in the person’s virtue.
The phenomenon raises many questions. If unnatural preservation is, indeed, a sign of saintliness, why aren’t all saints supernaturally preserved? Bernadette and Thérèse of Lisieux were both 19th century French girls who went into a convent and died of consumption at an early age. St Bernadette’s body was incorrupt but St Thérèse’s body, at her exhumation, was reduced to a skeleton in the normal way. Why should one saint be incorrupt and not the other?
The Catholic authorities are right to be cautious in equating incorruptibility with holiness; a case in point concerns the body of Cardinal Shuster (1880–1954), a former archbishop of Milan, which was discovered to be incorrupt after 31 years in the grave. The 1985 exhumation caused some embarrassment as the cardinal was anything but a saint; he was a friend of Mussolini and supported fascism and Italy’s war with Abyssinia. Nor does the phenomenon of incorrupt bodies necessarily prove the claims of Catholicism. When the famous yogi Paramahansa Yogananda died in California, in 1952, his unembalmed body had not decayed and was said to emit a beautiful fragrance. Perhaps there are many incorrupt bodies of holy Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, but we’ll never know because these religions don’t have the unusual custom of digging up their suspected saints. [Editor’s note: There are, however, several incorrupt bodies of Buddhist monks which are preserved as objects of veneration. See FT78:9, 157:23].
There are other quirky problems surrounding the phenomenon of incorrupt bodies of saints. While there is definitely something weird happening, it is also true that the faithful have perpetuated and sometimes helped the miracles along. In her defining book, Cruz agrees that some of the incorrupt bodies were later embalmed; others may have been incorrupt for hundreds of years only to decay once they were moved, suggesting that the airtight original container may have preserved the body. Other ‘incorrupt’ bodies have been spliced together with bits of string and wire; and darkened faces and hands covered with silver or wax, ostensibly for cosmetic purposes.
Despite the irrational elements and the ‘pious frauds’, there is enough evidence of remarkable occurrences surrounding the incorruptibles. St Isidore and St John of the Cross are two final examples which illustrate the unsettling events and show that, despite all other explanations, the incorruptibles are probably one of the best documented examples of the ‘miraculous’. St Isidore was a farm labourer who died in the year 1130. He was buried directly in the earth without tomb or coffin. Forty years later, prompted by a dream, his body was exhumed to move it to a more worthy tomb. An eyewitness recorded that it “‘looked as if it had just died although it had been lying in the earth for 40 years.” In 1622, the body was exhumed a second time before many witnesses. Once again, it was perfectly fresh and emitted “a heavenly odour”. One of the witnesses was the king’s minister, who signed the document attesting what they had all seen.
When St John of the Cross died in 1591, he was buried in a vault beneath the floor of the church. When the tomb was opened, nine months later, the body was fresh and intact; and when a finger was amputated to use as a relic, the body bled as a living person would have done. When the tomb was opened for a second time nine months after that, the body was still fresh, despite the fact that it had been covered with a layer of quicklime. At further exhumations in 1859 and 1909, the body was found to be still fresh. The last exhumation was in 1955, when the body – after nearly 400 years – was still “moist and flexible” although the skin “was slightly discoloured”.
As with most fortean phenomena, the existence of incorrupt bodies has not been studied seriously by the scientific community. As the phenomenon also exists outside Catholicism, it may be that in a devoutly religious person (of whatever persuasion), the practice of prayer and meditation is merged with the physical discipline of asceticism and abstinence. Perhaps the physical and the spiritual become intermingled; perhaps, in some cases, this interpenetration of the spiritual with the physical so overwhelms the person’s body as to preserve it from natural corruption. How else may we begin to explain why some bodies do not decay, despite the fact that the individual has died of a noxious disease, was not embalmed and was buried for decades in damp conditions with other corpses that rotted naturally? When we understand how the mind and body work together, we may also start to understand why some characters wind up being both dead as a doornail and fresh as a daisy.
Where to see the saints
St Cecilia The saint is buried beneath the high altar of the Basilica of St Cecilia in Rome. While the body is not on display, a sculpture by Stefano Moderno portrays the saint’s body as it was discovered at the second exhumation in 1599. (pictured below)
St Etheldreda The incorrupt hand of St Etheldreda can be viewed in St Etheldreda’s Catholic Church in Ely, Cambridgeshire.
St Edward the Confessor Thirty-six years after his death in 1066, Edward the Confessor’s body was found to be incorrupt. In 1163, the king was exhumed again and the body was still incorrupt, but in a third exhumation in 1269, only a skeleton was found. Edward the Confessor’s tomb is in Westminster Abbey.
St Clare of Montefalco The saint’s incorrupt body and her strange heart are enshrined at the Church of the Holy Cross in Montefalco, Italy.
St Rita of Cascia The incorrupt body of this “patron saint of hopeless cases” can be seen at the Basilica of St Rita in Cascia, Italy. She died in 1457.
St John Vianney The body of the parish priest of the village of Ars can be seen at the Basilica at Ars, in France.
St Catherine Labouré This saint, who saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary, was incorrupt after being buried in a damp vault for 56 years. Her still incorrupt body is on display at the chapel in Rue du Bac, Paris. (Pictured below)
St Bernadette Her incorrupt body can be viewed in its glass casket in the chapel of the convent of St Gildard, Nevers, France. The face and hands have been covered with a mask of wax.
[For other pictures of incorrupt bodies, see FT29:9; FT62:37; FT140:25.]
How to make a mummy
• The Incas preserved bodies with a combination of aromatic oils and slow drying.
• Tibetan lamas were disembowelled and the cavitiy packed with lacquer-saturated padding. The body was then wrapped in lacquered silk and placed in a lotus position in a hot salt-filled room. After several days of drying, it was cooled, covered with gold leaf and put on a throne with the other gilded lamas.
• Alexander the Great’s body was preserved in honey.
• Sir Gerald de Braybroke, who died in 1422, was preserved in an aromatic fluid which tasted like mushroom ketchup spiced with Spanish olives.
• In 1723, the well-preserved body of a naval commander was discovered steeped in rum, ‘as befitted one of his calling.’
• Other, more ancient mummies, including some from South America, have involved natural processes such as wind-drying or packing in dry sand.
• More recent methods of embalming used saltpetre, tar, salt, camphor and cinnamon. By the 19th century, embalmers used formaldehyde in a solution with glycerine. Today this mixture is injected into the veins of the corpse. Even with modern embalming methods, most bodies decay to a skeleton within a year.