Without life-sustaining processes like blood circulation and metabolism, the body begins to degrade. Skin falls away, eyeballs disintegrate, hair turns to dust, and eventually, so, too, will your bones. All of this is good news for the worms and bacteria that live in soil and feast on decaying material like your dead body. And it may be comforting to know that you’ll be recycled — or at least composted — after death.
But according to the tenets of the some faiths, there is a way to thwart the process of decomposition. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church held that individuals of the purest faith remain in a lifelike state after death, their bodies resisting the decay of the grave.
There are a number of documented cases in which people have been exhumed years after their deaths and were found inexplicably preserved. Even more amazing, some of these people have remained preserved for centuries. The church viewed this as a measure of sanctity, and incorruptibles — people whose bodies mysteriously thwart decay — were canonized into the tenets of Catholic mysticism. Incorruptibility became a component of beatification — the process of becoming sainted. This process also included the prospective saint appearing in visions to people after death and performing miracles, either after or during life. [Source]
Mummification Versus Incorruptibility
There are a few techniques wherein human remains can become preserved. One, of course, is mummification. In this method, pioneered by the pharaonic Egyptians, internal organs are carefully removed and body cavities are filled with herbs and other natural materials that combat decay. The body is then bathed in oils and wrapped tightly in linen. The mummified remains of Egypt’s early dynastic rulers can be found intact and on display around the world today, thousands of years after their deaths.
This is not the case for some of the incorruptibles found around the world — their existence baffles scientists. While the preserved remains of mummies are generally found in states of rigor mortis-like petrifaction, incorruptible corpses are pretty pliable. Their skin is supple, even years after their deaths. They appear, for all intents and purposes, to be sleeping or only recently dead. What’s more, these corpses don’t show signs of having been embalmed. And the local conditions don’t appear to have had a preservative effect on them. While they remained in a perfect state of composition, other corpses interred nearby were degenerating like normal.
The argument for a physical cause includes a belief that the corpse has been subjected to environmental conditions such that decomposition is significantly slowed. There are a number of ways of retarding decomposition, but the mechanism commonly stated is that of saponification. Another environmental condition that can be the cause of retarding decomposition is a burial ground that is cool and dry. The retardation of decomposition also occurs if the ground is composed of soil that is high in certain compounds that bring the bodies’ moisture to the surface of the skin. It is also suggested that bodies with low amounts of muscle and body fat tend to resist decomposition better.
The Odor of Sanctity
The Odour of Sanctity or Odor of Sanctity, according to the Catholic Church, is commonly understood to mean a specific scent (often compared to flowers) that emanates from the bodies of saints, especially from the wounds of stigmata or the corpse of an incorruptible. Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Maravillas of Jesus (a Spanish Discalced Carmelite) were reported to have emitted heavenly scents immediately after they had died. Reputedly, Teresa of Avila’s scent emanated throughout the whole monastery the moment she died. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux (known as “the Little Flower”) was said to have produced a strong scent of roses at her death, which was detectable for days afterward. Likewise, Padre Pio’s stigmata allegedly emanated the smell of roses.
1. Exhumation of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina and discovery of his incorruptibility (died 1968)
2. Incorrupt body of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes (died 1879)
3. Incorrupt body of Saint Vincent de Paul (died 1660)
1. St Pio of Pietrelcina (died 1968)
2. St John Vianney (died 1859)
3. St Bernadette of Lourdes (died 1879)
4. St Vincent de Paul (died 1660)
5. St Silvan (died 350 AD)
6. St Veronica Giuliani (died 1727)
7. St John Bosco (died 1888)
8. St Teresa Margaret (died 1770)
9. Blessed Imelda Lambertini (died 1333 – 12 years old)
10. St Catherine Laboure (died 1876)
11. St Clare of Assisi (died 1253; best friend of St Francis of Assisi)
12. St Agnes of Montepulciano (died 1317)
13. St Margarita María Alacoque (died 1690)
14. St Rita of Cascia (died 1457)
15. St Francis Xavier (died 1552)
16. St Maria Goretti (died 1902)
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