Forget "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The incorruptibles are saints whose bodies don't decay after death.
Every altar in a Catholic Church must contain a relic. Pop into a few old churches, especially in Italy or France, and you’ll stumble upon vials of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk and bits of bone or dismembered skulls. Most relics are fairly small and nondescript, but if you get really lucky you might encounter the crème de la crème of relics – one of the incorruptibles.
The incorruptibles are saints or other venerable Catholics whose bodies, or select body parts, have resisted the normal process of decay and putrefaction. Without the aid of embalming or mummification, they remain well preserved, lifelike, flexible, and often have what is referred to as an “odor of sanctity,” a sweet, floral smell. Many are said to bleed or produce strange oils for months or years after death.
Contrary to popular belief, incorruptibles don’t have to look like Sleeping Beauty just laid down to rest. Many look only marginally better than you’d expect a corpse to look. That is, in part, because incorruptibility doesn’t mean that a body has to resist any decay completely, just that it resists the normal process of decay. Additionally, once found to be incorrupt a body doesn’t have to remain incorrupt in perpetuity.
The Vatican does not consider incorruptibility a miracle in and of itself. Nor does incorruptibility automatically confer sainthood; not all incorruptibles are saints and not all saints are incorrupt. Rather, it is seen as a sign of special favor from God and an indication of exceptional holiness. This makes sense in the context of the Church’s views on Original Sin and death, and Catholicism’s general tendency to see bodies – especially female bodies - as something that must be overcome on the quest for holiness.
Interestingly, the Vatican does not keep any sort of official list of incorruptibles. Lists that do exist can be confusing and contradictory, precisely because some incorrupt bodies don’t stay that way forever (like St. Clare of Assisi) and because some wax effigies are mistaken for an incorruptible (like Maria Goretti). One of the most extensive books on the subject, Joan Carroll Cruz’s The Incorruptibles, documents 102 cases. Other lists put the number around 250. Even on the higher end, it is only a small fraction of the 10,000 or so saints in the Catholic canon.
Regardless of personal religious beliefs, coming face-to-face with an incorruptible is, therefore, a unique, rare, and admittedly macabre experience. Below is a small selection of some of the more famous and interesting ones that are well worth a visit on your next trip.
Saint Bernadette (1844-1879) is perhaps the best-known and most photographed incorruptible. As a child, she claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her seventeen times and directed her to build a chapel on the site of the apparitions. Today, over 200 million people have visited Lourdes, making it the most popular Christian pilgrimage in the world. As part of Saint Bernadette’s canonization process, her body was exhumed 30 years after her death in 1909 and twice more in 1919 and 1925. She was found to be perfectly intact during each. After the final exhumation, however, her skin was beginning to discolor so a wax covering for her face and hands was made. She is displayed with the wax enhancements in a glass coffin at the abbey in Nevers, France where she lived as a nun.
Saint Rita of Cascia
Saint Rita of Cascia (1381-1457) grew up wanting to be a nun, but was unhappily married at the age of twelve. After her husband and sons died, she tried again to become a nun but was denied because she was no longer a virgin. A few years later, she was finally allowed to enter an Augustinian order and became known for her visions and partial stigmata, a small wound on her forehead said to be from the crown of thorns. Today, her body is displayed in a glass coffin in the Basilica in Cascia, Italy. People often claim to see the body move into different positions and to see her eyes open and close on their own.
Saint Catherine Laboure
Saint Catherine Laboure (1806-1876) was a Catholic nun who claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her three times. In one of the visions, Mary purportedly gave instructions for the creation of the Miraculous Medal, which remains popular today. Saint Catherine Laboure is unique among Marian visionaries in that she claimed to physically touch Mary. Saint Catherine’s body was first exhumed 56 years after it was buried and found to be perfectly intact. Even her eyes remained preserved and bright blue. Today, she rests in a glass coffin in Paris in the same chapel where she experienced her visions.
Saint Catherine of Bologna
Saint Catherine of Bologna (1413-1463) was from an aristocratic family, but left her role as lady-in-waiting at an Italian court to join a convent. Rising to Superioress with the help of the Pope, she is best known for writing Treatise on the Seven Spiritual Weapons Necessary for Spiritual Warfare. The work recounts her visions of God and Satan and was critical to the development of medieval mysticism. Originally buried without a coffin, her body was exhumed eighteen days later because of miracles attributed to her and the sweet smell coming from the grave. Her body remains in Bologna, where it has blackened from years of candle smoke and is displayed, not lying down, but sitting up! Apparently, she appeared in a vision to a nun and requested to be displayed that way.
Saint Cecilia (2nd century AD) was the first saint whose body was declared incorrupt. A virgin martyr, an executioner struck her three times but was unable to decapitate her and left her bleeding to death in the streets for three days. Officials exhumed her body in 1599 and found it to be in “perfect condition.” A lovely marble statue in the eponymous church in Trastevere, Italy depicts the position the body was originally found in.
Saint Francis Xavier
Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was one of the founders of the Society of Jesus and served as one of the first missionaries to South Asia and Japan. He died en route to China, where his body was buried in quicklime to make transport easier. Two and a half months later it was exhumed and found “as if it were still alive.” Reports even claimed that it still bled. The body was then reburied in lime, temporarily buried without a coffin, and exhumed a few more times before reaching its final resting place in Goa.
Padre Pio (1887-1968) was a friar, priest, and mystic who became famous for experiencing the stigmata in the forms of wounds on his hands and feet. Right before his death, Padre Pio exclaimed, “I see two mothers!” His last word was, “Maria!” Padre Pio’s body was exhumed forty years after his death. While the top part of his skull was skeletal, his hands were said to look “like they had just undergone a manicure” and the rest of the body was in good condition. Today, he is displayed with a silicone mask over his face and visited daily by thousands of pilgrims.
Have you ever seen one of the incorruptibles? What do you think of this ancient death cult?
P.S. If you're interested in learning more about the incorruptibles or other relics, I highly recommend Elizabeth Harper's blog All The Saints You Should Know. In addition to some fascinating pieces, she has an ever-evolving map of relics in Paris and Rome.