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Incorruptibility is seen as distinct from the good preservation of a body, or mummification. Incorruptible bodies are often said to have the Odour of Sanctity, exuding a sweet aroma.
Incorruptibility in Christianity
In Catholic and Orthodox Christian cultures, if a body remains incorruptible after death, this is generally seen to be a sign that the individual is a saint although not every saint is expected to have an incorruptible corpse.
According to the Roman Catholic Church, a body is not deemed incorruptible if it has undergone an embalming process or other means of preserving the dead, or if it has become stiff, as do all normal corpses, even when the best preservation techniques are used. Incorruptible saints remain completely flexible, as if they were only sleeping. (See the book, The Incorruptibles, referenced below.) As such, although the body of Pope John XXIII remains in a remarkably intact state, after its discovery, Church officials quickly pointed out that the pope’s body had been embalmed and that there was a lack of oxygen in his sealed triple coffin.
In the Orthodox Church, incorruptibility continues to be an important element in the process of canonization (q.v.). An important distinction is made between natural mummification and supernatural incorruptibility. In The Brothers Karamazov, a novel by Dostoyevsky, the body of the newly-deceased Starets (holy monk) Zossima began to decay noticeably even during his funeral wake, which caused a great scandal in his monastery and among the townsfolk, who fully expected that he would be incorrupt.
Incorruptibility in other cultures
Although incorruptibility in the west is seen as a primarily Christian phenomenon, other cultures have examples of revered, incorrupt dead. The followers of Paramahansa Yogananda maintain that his body was incorruptible. While the death certificate clearly shows the body was embalmed, his followers claim that such a corpse would normally show signs of mold developing from the pores if a pore-blocking cream is not used, and that no such cream was used in this case.
In Islam, many scholars hold the belief that the bodies of Prophets are incorruptible, because of the statement of Prophet Muhammad
“ Narrated by Sayyidina Abu Darda:
The Holy Prophet said : “Increase your recitation of salawat on me on Friday because on this day Angels present themselves to me. There is no servant of Allah who recites salawat upon me, except that his voice reaches me from wherever he is”. The Companions asked, “even after your departure?” He replied, “Yes after my departure too, because Allah has made it forbidden upon the earth to consume the bodies of the Prophets.”
The body of Hindi guru Paramahansa Yogananda was also reported to be incorruptible. As reported in Time Magazine on August 4, 1952, Harry T. Rowe, Los Angeles Mortuary Director of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California where Yogananda’s body is interred, stated in a notarized letter:
“ “The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramahansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience…. No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death…. No indication of mold was visible on his skin, and no visible drying up took place in the bodily tissues. This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one…. No odor of decay emanated from his body at any time….” ”
Another possible candidate is that of a Tibetan monk (reported by AFP, quoting the Hindustan Times, 2004). This body has been revered by the local villagers since its discovery in 1975. However, this case may be more appropriately considered a case of natural mummification.
Within Buddhism there is a process known in Japanese as sokushinbutsu, which consisted of a specific regimen for self-mummification over nearly a decade of time. This differs from the Christian understanding of incorruptibility in that it was willingly sought after and labored for, as opposed to being a gift given from God to a Saint.
In other cultures, however, an incorrupted body is a sign that the corpse is a vampire.
The causes of incorruptibility are disputed. The two main positions can be summarized as an argument for a spiritual cause, or an argument for a physical or environmental cause.
The argument for a spiritual cause may include a belief that the pious nature of the individual in some way permeated the flesh (a metaphysical cause having a physical effect), or a belief that decomposition was prevented by the intervention of a deity.
The argument for a physical cause includes a belief that the corpse has been subjected to environmental conditions such that decomposition is seriously retarded. 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 comprised of soil that is high in certain compounds that bring the bodies’ moisture to the surface of the skin. It is believed that, under the correct circumstances, the moisture from the skin will be removed from the body, retarding decomposition. It is also suggested that bodies with low amounts of muscle and body fat tend to resist decomposition better.
The Japanese Buddhist process of sokushinbutsu entails a method for self-mummification.
Incidence of incorruptibility
Incorruptibility is seen almost overwhelmingly only in Catholic or Orthodox Christian cultures. However, it is argued by some that this is more due to the cultural phenomenon of exhuming the bodies of pious people to discover if they are incorrupt or not, a practice that is uncommon in other cultures, even other Christian cultures. Still, this theory can also be argued, because some saints were accidentally discovered in a state of incorruption when they had already been buried many years, and their tombs were being prepared for re-use. (This is discussed in the referenced book “The Incorruptibles.”) Other people were never found incorrupt when their tombs were excavated for re-use.
Instances of incorruptibility
Among the Saints and holy men and women whose bodies are said to be or have been incorrupt are (also see list in The Incorruptibles):
St. Agnes of Montepulciano—Roman Catholic nun
St. Alexander of Svir—Russian Orthodox monk
Blessed Anna Marie Taigi—Roman Catholic
St. Amphilochius of Pochayiv – Orthodox monk from western Ukraine, lived in times of the Soviets
Sts. Anthony, John, and Eustathios—Russian Orthodox martyrs of Vilnius
St. Bernadette-Visionary of Lourdes—Roman Catholic nun
St. Catherine of Bologna—Roman Catholic
St. Catherine Labouré—Roman Catholic nun
St. Charbel Maklouf—Maronite (Eastern Catholic) monk
St. Cecilia—Roman Catholic martyr
St. Clare of Assisi—Roman Catholic nun
St. Clare of Montepulciano—Roman Catholic nun
Claudius of Besançon -French bishop and abbot
Blessed Dominic Barberi – Roman Catholic missionary to England
St. Francis Xavier- Apostle of the Far East—Roman Catholic missionary (History of his incorrupt body)
Blessed Imelda—Roman Catholic Dominican nun
Blessed Jacinta Marto, visionary at Fatima—Roman Catholic
St. John Bosco—Roman Catholic
St. John Vianney—Roman Catholic, Curé (parish priest) of Ars
St. Job of Pochayiv – Orthodox monk from western Ukraine
Blessed Josaphata Hordashevska – Greek-Catholic nun from western Ukraine
St. Louis Orione – Roman Catholic
Saint Louise de Marillac—Roman Catholic nun
Blessed Margaret of Castello—Roman Catholic
St. Margaret Mary (Marie Alacoque)—Roman Catholic Nun
St. Maria Mazarello—Roman Catholic
St. Matrona of Chios—Orthodox saint
St. Rita of Cascia—Roman Catholic nun
St. Sunniva of Norway – Roman Catholic martyr, from Selja island.
St. Sergius of Radonezh – Orthodox monk
St. Thorlac of Iceland – Roman Catholic bishop of Skalholt
St. Thorvald of Norway – Roman Catholic martyr from Lier, patron of Oslo
St. Vasyl Velychkovsky – Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest, died in Winnipeg, body found incorrupt 30 years later.
St. Veronica Giulianni—Roman Catholic nun
St. Vincent de Paul—Roman Catholic priest
Vissarion Korkoliacos—Greek Orthodox monk
St. Zita— Roman Catholic
Blessed Maria Angela of Astorch- Roman Catholic Nun
Blessed Maria Margareth Caiani- Roman Catholic Nun
St. Benedict the Black- Roman Catholic Monk
St. Maria Crucificada- Roman Catholic Nun
Blessed Angelina Of Spoleto- Roman Catholic Nun
St. Maria Francisca Illagas- Roman Catholic Nun
St. John Jacob of Hozevit- Roman Catholic
St. Nicholas of Tolentino- Roman Catholic
Blessed Betrando De Genies- Roman Catholic
St. Peter Julian Eymard- Roman Catholic Priest
St. Charles Seeze- Roman Catholic Monk, Mystic and Stigmatis
St. Gaspar Louis Bertoni- Roman Catholic Priest
St. Maria Goretti- Roman Catholic Virgin and martyr
St. Virginia Centurion- Roman Catholic
St. Stanislaus kostka- Roman Catholic
Venerable Maria Jesus Delgado- Roman Catholic Nun
St. Salvador Von Horta- Roman Catholic
St. Catherine Of Siena- Roman Catholic Nun and Mystic
St. Joana Francisca De Chantal- Roman Catholic Nun
St. Joseph Cupertino- Roman Catholic Monk
Blessed Stephen Bellesini- Roman Catholic Priest
Venerable Solanus Cassey- Roman catholic
St. Angela mericci- Roman Catholic Nun
St. Alphege- Roman catholic
St. Ambrose of Milan- Roman Catholic
Blessed Sebastian de Apparisio- Roman Catholic
St. Miguel Cordero Febres- Roman Catholic
Blessed Maria De Jesus Torres- Roman Catholic Nun
St. Juliana Falconeiri- Roman Catholic Nun
Blessed Narcisia De Jesus- Roman Catholic
St. Angela of The cross- Roman catholic Nun
Blesed maria De San Jose- Roman catholic Nun
St. Ursula Ledochowski- Roman catholic Nun
Popes and Bishops
Pope Blessed Innocent XI- Roman Catholic pope. Innocent XI died in 1689 and when exhumed from his tomb for beatification, was surprisingly serenely preserved. Today his incorrupt body lies with the incorrupt body of Pope St Pius X at the Vatican. The face and hands are lined with silver coating.
Pope Blessed Pius IX— Roman Catholic pope
Pope Saint Pius X— Roman Catholic pope (1903–14)
Pope Saint Pius V- Roman catholic Pope
St. Cuthbert—Anglo-Saxon, venerated by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans
Mgr. Gabriel Manek SVD— Roman Catholic Archibishop of Flores, Indonesia (1918–89)
St. Innocent of Irkutsk—Orthodox saint
St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco—Orthodox bishop
Venerable John Henry Newman—Roman Catholic cardinal
St. Josaphat Kuntsevych – Greek-Catholic metropolitan from Ukraine, martyr, murdered in Polotsk. Body is enshrined in Rome.
St. Raphael (Hawaweeny) of Brooklyn—Orthodox bishop
St. Ubaldo Gubbio- Roman Catholic Bishop
Christian kings and queens
St. Olga – Grand duchess of Kyivan Rus’ (Ukraine), Orthodox saint, died in 969. During the rule of St Volodymyr it was discovered that her body had not undergone corruption.
St. Volodymyr – Grand duke of Kyivan Rus’ (Ukraine), Orthodox saint, died July 15, 1015, body found incorrupt in 1635.
St. Olav – king of Norway, Roman Catholic saint. In 1075, his incorrupt body was enshrined in what became the cathedral of Nidaros
St. Edmund I of England – king of East Anglia. In c. 915 his body was found to be incorrupt and was transferred to nearby Bedricsworth, later called Bury St. Edmunds (venerated by Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans).
St. Edward the Confessor – king of England (venerated by Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans)
St. Ferdinand III – Roman Catholic king of Leon and Castile (Spain). His body remains incorrupt. Many miracles took place at his tomb, and Clement X canonized him in 1671.
St. Casimir, Patron of Poland and Lithuania—Roman Catholic
Blessed Queen Mafalda of Portugal, queen consort of Castile—Roman Catholic
Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov and three other Buddhist holy men
Huineng—Zen Buddhist Patriarch
Ramakrishna Paramahansa—Hindu holy man
The Incorruptibles: A Study of the Incorruption of the Bodies of Various Catholic Saints and Beati, by Joan Carroll Cruz, OCDS, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc, June 1977.