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Incorruptibility is the idea that if you're holy enough your body won't rot away after death and you may be a saint. It's one of many bizarre ideas in the doctrinal body of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, although similar ideas can be found in other religions. It has nothing to do with being unsusceptible to bribes like Eliot Ness and everything to do with being so close to God that worms are scared to eat you.
Normally when people die, their bodies decompose. This involves a number of stages. First, in autolysis, dying cells release digestive enzymes which begin to break them down. After about 3 days, depending on temperature, putrefaction begins. Bacteria and fungi digest proteins, destroying structural elements of cells. The flesh turns to liquid mush and smells really horrible; only the skeleton remains. At various point in the body's decay, different invertebrates visit for a meal and/or to lay eggs; this has enabled the field of Forensic entomology to estimate the time of death based upon the presence or absence of such visitors.
However this doesn't always happen. Particularly in hot, dry conditions bodies can be naturally mummified, when the normal mechanisms of decay are prevented by the absence of moisture. A similar preservation process happens in peat bogs and in very cold conditions, although in the last case it's generally referred to as being frozen food rather than mummification. This is all entirely scientific.
Too hot to rot
However, some Christians believe that people who're especially good do not always rot away. This is taken as proof that you're a saint, although it's no longer considered hard and fast evidence. Most likely your relics will be shipped off to the Vatican, where they are inspected. Saintly body parts are often covered in wax and may be sealed in metal or glass for display, which will have the effect of aiding preservation. Some bodies are then placed in crypts, but others are put on public exhibition so everybody can marvel at your indifference to putrefaction.
There's a fair old list of Christian
zombies incorruptibles, which includes:
- Saint Bernadette of Lourdes: her relics were exhumed in 1919 and 1925 and examined by committees of the great and good, both church officials and local politicians, before being put on permanent display.
- Saint John Neumann, fourth bishop of Philadelphia and one of a very small number of saintly Americans: his body is on display in the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann in Philadelphia.
- Saint Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuits: he's been buried more times than a juicy bone, and his body is now in a silver casket in Goa, India, except for his right forearm which is in Rome, and another arm bone which has been zinging around eastern Asia for centuries.
- Saint Catherine of Siena: her head's in Siena and her body's in Rome. One legend has it that the people of Siena stole her head and smuggled it out of Rome; when challenged by a guard they opened the bag and it was full of flowers; when they got to Siena it changed back to nun-flesh.
- Saint John of the Cross, Counter-Reformation intellectual and friar: his arms and legs were removed after his death, with a hand and leg still on show in Ubeda, Andalucia, Spain, the other arm in Madrid, and the rest of him in Segovia, central Spain.
- Cardinal Shuster, a fascist and friend of Mussolini: his body was found preserved 31 years later. It is said that he is one of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church is no longer so keen on incorruptibility.
- Charles I of England and Scotland: the executed monarch's severed head (for once, a body part removed pre-death, or at least at the point thereof) was dug up 165 years after his burial and found to be well-preserved. His skin was discoloured but his hair was in perfect condition and there was little decomposition of the flesh.
There are a variety of scientific explanations, which may vary from case to case. Often the church which holds the relics is reluctant to allow close examination by skeptics. However in some cases, Rome has itself been skeptical.
Burial practices often serve to preserve corpses quite well. Pope John XXIII's corpse was found to be in very good condition, but this was explained by the fact that it was embalmed and sealed inside 3 coffins (concentrically on this occasion, not piecewise); he is no longer considered by Rome to have been incorruptible. Incorruptible bodies often have a sweet smell, which may be a symbol of divinity, or of embalming chemicals.
In other cases, the body appears to be slowly rotting, despite the presence of a protective coating of wax. This appears to be the case with Saint Bernadette, whose body was exhumed, covered in wax, and put on show at St Gildard at Nevers, France.
Fraud is another possibility: it seems on one occasion that St Teresa of Avila's corpse was substituted for another more recent one.
In some cases, chance features of the burial may lead to the body being unexpectedly well-preserved; this may be the case with Charles I's head. This can happen in alkaline conditions, or if there is insufficient oxygen, light, and micro-organisms to rot the corpse. In the right conditions, fat can be converted to adipocere (mortuary wax), due to anaerobic bacteria acting in the absence of oxygen and normally in damp conditions; this is an effective preservative and bodies have been kept in a recognisable form for centuries.
In summary, it's a myth that bodies will always rot quickly, and there are many ways they can be preserved. If you add to that the propensity for people to see what they want to see, or what will earn them pilgrim-money, it's easy to find a rational explanation for incorruptible bodies.
Not to be confused with
- Les Inrockuptibles is the French equivalent of Rolling Stone magazine. The name's probably funny if you're French.