Peculiar corpses
May 30, 2008 4:25 AM   Subscribe

Peculiar corpses: "Incorruptibles remaining free of decomposition have baffled scientists to this day. These bodies are discovered in many different environments, including environments that would typically cause an accidental or deliberately preserved corpse to decompose rapidly." The photographed examples seem to all be associated with Christian faith. Hmm. "[At Oratorio di San Lorenzo] in Palermo, however, corpses are treated as characters in a play": The Museum of the Dead, reassuringly less preserved.
posted by nthdegx (66 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
So were all these saints made entirely of wax during their lifetimes, or were they transmogrified after death?
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:38 AM on May 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

The Catholic church is so goth!
posted by chillmost at 4:40 AM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

From the about page: The object of this site is to help people overcome problems by supernatural means, and to point out key facts about the supernatural which many either don't know about or deny. Many people today only try to remedy their problems with natural solutions when in many cases only a supernatural solution is the answer!

Don't even get me started on the "Believe in Evolution" page.
posted by DU at 4:46 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was nine years old, I was living in Holland and attending a predominantly American school. As a Brit kid, and a Catholic, I was one of perhaps ten kids that were given the 'privilege' of an hour of religious education each week. The tutor was Father Wassenburg, a chaplain in the Dutch Air Force. He was a great guy, and a friend of the family, but could be charitably described as somewhat kooky.

One week, Father Wassenburg treated us to a religious film. This was at the end of the 70s, when watching a taped film on television was regarded as something close to a miracle. So, we were sat down, the lights were dimmed, and the tape rolled. The film turned out to be a documentary about Saint Bernadette. Specifically, how the remarkable preservation of her body was part of the proof of her saintliness. Long, long scenes of a waxy looking dead nun in a glass box. I think that we got to about halfway through before we had to stop because too many of the kids were crying.

For at least a couple of years afterwards I'd have a panic attack if the light was turned out at night. From what I remember of the parents discussing the aftermath, every single child had nightmares for months afterwards.
posted by veedubya at 4:47 AM on May 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

Uncanny valley, OLDSKOOL
posted by DU at 4:52 AM on May 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

I love stuff like this. Thanks, nthdegx!

Also recommended: dem bones, dem bones...

And The 10 Most Fascinating Tombs in the World.

In 1980 I had the great good fortune to visit the Tombs of the Capuchin monks, near Palermo, and wow, that place is fantastic. As it happens, the day I visited there were NO other tourists or anybody around. I was there alone, and wandered throughout the maze-like underground tomb for about 2 hours. One or two hooded monk caretakers occasionally passed by, their hoods drawn so as to make it difficult to see their faces. This only added to the otherworldly feeling of the place.

I'd love to go there again someday.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:00 AM on May 30, 2008

In some god and tourist forsaken cathedral I came upon in Andalucia one time there was an incorrupt corpse of some all-but-forgotten to the outside world saint who had died many hundreds of years before. He was entombed completely in glass, except for this bizarre brass cone that protruded through the glass a mid thigh and plunged strait down through his clothes and the mummified flesh. At the end of the cone was his bared thigh bone. It had been rubbed by countless pilgrims and penatents over the centuries so that the top of it had a sheen like the finest marble. As I closed in, there were a couple old ladies in black that wispered some prayers and snuck a little rub on the bone. At first I was horrified, but then, as if guided by a divine force, I just had to touch it. It felt so amazing, like butter, so smooth, I had to keep rubing more until the next little old lady in black cleared her throat behind me meaning that it was time to pray for the son she lost to those bastard Socialists in the Civil War.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:05 AM on May 30, 2008 [16 favorites]

Paging user 40221!
posted by TedW at 5:24 AM on May 30, 2008

This inevitably leads to the question, How can the process of decay, which has no intelligence, choose which bodies to devour and not to devour, and why do they happen to be devout Catholics? This phenomena is simply miraculous.

How can the process of getting drunk, which has no intelligence, choose me again and again?

Just because something may be unexplained, does not mean that it involves the hand of God.
posted by three blind mice at 5:27 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Incorruptibles remaining free of decomposition...

Easy. They ate lots of twinkies.
posted by phredgreen at 5:31 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Catholics are weird.
posted by greenie2600 at 5:39 AM on May 30, 2008

I had seen a documentary on this once before and if memory serves me correctly, some of them had wax faces and hands as to not scare the public viewing the body. I guess the skin may not decompose, but it still loses hydration and the eyes sink in (or turn to dust?) and is a bit frightening to look at.
The doctor who was viewing the incorruptible said the body had decomposed to a certain point but now because of the glass enclosure, it had slowed the process down tremendously. It's a fuzzy memory, so I may not be entirely right.

I wonder if anyone is checking in on Pope JP2..
posted by czechmate at 5:45 AM on May 30, 2008

It can only be the power of the almighty god.

No, not your god. Mine.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:46 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's also Hambo Lama Itigelov. I don't think he was Catholic.
posted by Grangousier at 5:54 AM on May 30, 2008

St. Rita of Cascia - Died in 1457. It is also publicly known that her body has been seen in different positions in the glass case, as well as eyes having opened and closed unaided.

That's just wrong. Eeeeeewwwwwwww!
posted by Enron Hubbard at 6:34 AM on May 30, 2008

It is quite clear these people are made entirely of cheese.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:43 AM on May 30, 2008

posted by so_necessary at 6:50 AM on May 30, 2008

The Museum of the Dead link required less trepidation on my part to view than the incorruptibles. Too much CSI?

Today I shall contemplate my mortality.
posted by artifarce at 7:00 AM on May 30, 2008

artifarce, I almost wish it had been the first link. Must. Follow. Own. Advice.
posted by nthdegx at 7:01 AM on May 30, 2008

I have also been in the amazing (amazing amazing) catacombs in Palermo (also on a tourist-free day). There are 3 "incorruptible" bodies there-- none of them Religious. There's a 3 year old girl, a 12-year old boy, perfectly preserved, they look asleep, and the third one not quite as alive looking, but still remarkably fresh (can't remember age or sex on that one--I was there in 1976). The experience completely cured me of fears of dead things, because of the abundance of bones and bodies, the tenderness with which the incorruptibles are displayed, and the humor and even joy of the tableaux.

I am perfectly willing to believe "miracle." Less willing to concede it to g-d. If it's done by someone with the ability to do it, where's the miracle?
posted by nax at 7:08 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

The incorruptibles page mentions corpses accidentaly preserved by natural radioactivity, which is all kinds of awesome. In case you're not lucky enough to drop dead in some place that glows at night, Technology Application Services of San Jose, California, has helpfully patented an appropriate method and apparatus.
posted by ghost of a past number at 7:12 AM on May 30, 2008

What? No Jeremy Bentham?
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:18 AM on May 30, 2008

Metafilter: It is quite clear these people are made entirely of cheese.
posted by Grangousier at 7:23 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Catholics are weird.

No we are not. I can let all of you in on a little secret here. Ready? Not many non-Catholics know this one. Devote Catholic means they receive Holy Communion like 2 maybe 3 times a day. All that Blood of Christ was red wine at one time right? Well these saints (God bless their souls) received so much it naturally preserved them!

What you don't believe me???? Well here is another one for ya:

These saints lived very holy and good lives, helping people better themselves and such. Because of these acts of charity and kindness God saw it fit for them not to rot like the rest of us.

Or lastly:

We don't know what causes it and neither do scientist. We do, however, thinks it's cool enough to say "hey these were some good people and now their bodies don't rot! Let's build a church for them! Yippeee!" We are weird like that I guess?

Awesome link by the way. Funny my mom just showed me something about Padre Pio (sp) and he is the same way. I wanted to look up something on this and what do ya know???

Thanks Nthdegx
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:31 AM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I see they have Philly's Saint John Neumann on there. There's a small picture of him on the church's homepage which is slightly better than the one on the FPP link but not much better. It's so bizarre, up close it doesn't really look like a human body, more like a wax sculpture. It's a must see for any Philly people who haven't been, it doesn't cost anything and you can usually pop in whenever you want during the day when church isn't being used for services.
posted by The Straightener at 7:32 AM on May 30, 2008

Mr Glass has a file on all these guys.
posted by rokusan at 7:34 AM on May 30, 2008

Link's borky, try this one instead, St. John Neumann.
posted by The Straightener at 7:35 AM on May 30, 2008

The secret to their incorruptibility?

posted by Halloween Jack at 7:49 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are believers and there are skeptics.

Like with UFOs, y'know?
posted by kozad at 8:00 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Catholics are awesome. We rock!
posted by oddman at 8:14 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went to the corpse place in Palermo a few years ago and was creeped out by all the signs showing the way to the preserved bambina. On the way out, an Italisn tourist in front of us shivered and exclaimed, 'Tutti morti! Eugh!'
posted by Mocata at 8:21 AM on May 30, 2008

Recommended reading on this topic: The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. Discusses both deliberately and naturally preserved bodies, including incorruptibles (and not just Catholic ones), and the people who research them, and at least a few who create them.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:41 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I still like the Habsburg Herzgruft (hearts crypt) in Vienna the best. All those wee, dead Habsburg hearts separated from their bodies and preserved in tiny urns. 54 of 'em, to be exact. It's creepy, but also cool in its own way. See here for photos of many of the urns.

The Viennese are some of the most morbid people ever. Hell, even their tourist board plays it up. And if you think Americans put a strange emphasis on giant, Bridezilla-style weddings, well... you don't know about a Schöne Leich.
posted by at 8:46 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Catholics are weird.

Catholics are awesome. We rock!

This isn't a strictly Catholic thing folks.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:48 AM on May 30, 2008

It is also publicly known that her body has been seen in different positions in the glass case, as well as eyes having opened and closed unaided.

Sounds like an altar boy has a sense of humor.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:00 AM on May 30, 2008

Sounds like an altar boy has a sense of humor.

Or a psychological issue.

Or it could be that she's been faking it all along!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:09 AM on May 30, 2008

I am skeptical.

For starters, this page has the Microsoft Frontpage look to it, which screams "I'm a crackpot." (I do not know why bad web design so often correlates with bad thinking, but it does.)

And, of course, there's the anti-evolution page DU mentioned above. So, we're clearly dealing with a group that trusts superstition over science, which makes this untrustworthy source material.

So, I started plugging names of these supposed incorruptibles into Google.

Jacinta Marto - Exhumed in 1935 and again in 1951, Jacinta's face was found incorrupt. However, the only citation in the article belongs to one Luiz Solimeo. A search on his name was that he is very strongly anti-homosexual and an author for a conservative Catholic group called "Tradition, Family and Property." This book was published by the same organization and is, if anything, less reliable source material than the article linked in the FPP.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini - Her body is not incorrupt; although it is often said to be so, signage around her shrine and resting place in Washington Heights make it very clear that she is not.

Pope St. Pius X - According to a quote from the footnote in Wikipedia, "All of the body, which Pius X had forbidden to be touched by unconsecrated hands, even for the traditional embalming, was in an excellent state of conservation." It seems to me that if the corpse was handled less often, and since people were forbidden from removing his organs for the normal embalming process, that there might be less bacteria and whatnot eating his remains. And, considering that this was a pope who died in the modern era, it's entirely possible that he was buried in a sealed coffin that would prevent other invaders from getting in. It's still a bit unusual, but hardly miraculous.

Saint Mary Mazzarello - Wikipedia and the other usual sources do not mention anything about her being incorruptible. A search for "Mary Mazzarello incorrupt" lists the link in the FPP as the top link of 44 pages. The second link is a list of supposed incorruptibles in an online forum, with no further detail. I feel I can safely discard this claim.

Saint Bernadette Soubirous - Wikipedia has no footnotes, although it does mention that her body was supposedly not corrupted. Wikipedia also notes that a wax mask was made because "the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public," which indicates to me that God wasn't doing a very good job of keeping her incorruptible.

You know, rather than proceed through the whole list, which would take the better part of the afternoon, I'm just going to reproduce a quote I found from Joe Mickell, an author who debunked a lot of this incorruptibles nonsense, which I found in a skeptic's forum:
In at least two instances, the body of a saint remained relatively incorrupt (eventually seeming to mummify), even though means had been taken to hasten the decomposition. The first was that of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and was done so that the saint's bones might more easily be sent home from an island in the Far East. Nevertheless, after ten weeks "the coffin was raised and the body found to be perfectly preserved under the lime." Eventually it became "dry and shrunken in size" and the interior had to be braced with wires, although the mystery of its original resistance to the "destructive agent" of the lime is still cited. In reality there is no mystery: Contrary to popular belief, the chemical does not hasten the destruction but actually has a preservative effect on a corpse! "The lime combines with body fat to produce a hard soap that resists invasion by insects and bacteria, and retards putrefaction."

. . .

To summarize this litany of examples, it should be clear that while there are indeed some notable instances of preservation of saint's corpses, there are also many accompanying reasons to account for them: embalming (sometimes unknown to the viewer or deliberately concealed), natural mummification (fostered by a tomb or catacomb --rather than earthen -- burial), periodic examination and conservation of the relics, and so on. But as we have also seen, many of the instances of alleged incorruptibility cannot be verified or -- more importantly -- are clearly disproved by the facts: numerous instances in which the bodies were eventually reduced to bones or have had to be subjected to extensive restoration in order to be placed on view.

Such facts can serve an an antidote to exaggerated claims for incorruption -- claims like those captioning the cover photo of a credulous book, The Incorruptibles. The caption reads: "The incorrupt body of Satin Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, France (1844-1879), preserved intact for 100 years without embalming or other artificial means." Now it would take an autopsy by independent authorities to determine whether (like the corpse of St. Catherine Laboure) St. Bernadette had been gvien injections of embalming fluid. But in any event, the book does note that when the body was first exhumed, thirty years after St. Bernadette's death, it was found "emaciated" and ten years later the face had to be covered with a wax mask.
posted by JDHarper at 9:09 AM on May 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

Y'know, I'm more inclined to go with the vampire theory.
posted by fnerg at 9:47 AM on May 30, 2008

Wow JD Harper.... Tho I disagree with your opinion I will fight to the death for your right to have one. Also a lot of saints are in Europe/Italy in small villages that probably don't have access to wikipedia (the know all site of the web.. Me/rolls eyes.) I hope you have a wonderful day and God bless! Also if you do not believe in God then I hope you have a wonderful day and ummm errr something nice happens to you?
posted by Mastercheddaar at 9:51 AM on May 30, 2008

Let me spell this out for you; we already have a term for corpses who don't rot. We call them 'vampires', and the proper way of dealing with them is stake 'em, cut off the head, and then burn everything.

"Incorruptibles" sounds like bullshit marketing spin to me. Probably paid for by the damn blood suckers themselves.

This is why if I even think you might be dead and not rotting, I'm right in there with the hammer and saw. It's the only way to be sure.
posted by quin at 9:54 AM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Pleeze, Jeebus, make ma bawdy into a wax dummy upon my death.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:54 AM on May 30, 2008

Also a lot of saints are in Europe/Italy in small villages that probably don't have access to wikipedia
I don't see how this is relevant to whether or not the supposed incorruptibles actually exist. If anything, its evidence against the incorruptibles: The uneducated are more easily deceived than those with better access to information.
posted by JDHarper at 9:57 AM on May 30, 2008

Where's coldchef when we need him?

Putting aside the miracle-or-no? issue, I can't help thinking someone has the job/penance/holy-obligation/beatific-opportunity of changing the clothes on these bodies every (just guessing) 50 to 100 years. That thought is making me shudder in my clothes a little.
posted by mmahaffie at 10:11 AM on May 30, 2008

Magnificent Corpses by Anneli Rufus is a fun read about travelling through Europe visiting incorruptible saints. It's neither rah-rah-Catholic nor anti-religion, instead mostly focuses on the "hey this is weird and cool--come look!" aspect.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:21 AM on May 30, 2008

Hoo hoo! Look who knows so much, eh! It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.
-- Miracle Max
posted by bigskyguy at 10:22 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

And, considering that [Pope Pius X] died in the modern era, it's entirely possible that he was buried in a sealed coffin that would prevent other invaders from getting in. It's still a bit unusual, but hardly miraculous.

I read in Mitford's The American Way of Death that sealed coffins don't do much to preserve bodies. In fact, the anaerobic environment should actually hasten decomposition. Mark Harris' Grave Matters makes the same claim:

Various microbes are involved in the breakdown of the human body. In the airless environment of the sealer casket, it's the anaerobic bacteria that thrive. Unlike their oxygen-fueled aerobic counterparts, these agents attack the body's organic matter by putrefying it, turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas. In entombment in the aboveground mausoleum, the buildup of methane gas has been sufficient enough in some cases to blow the lid off caskets and marble door panels off crypts. To address what became known in the industry as the "exploding casket syndrome," manufacturers added "burpers" to their sealer caskets, gaskets that release -- or "burp" out -- accumulated gases. The gaskets may have reduced the incidents of exploding caskets, but they don't change the conditions that fuel the production of methane. Anaerobic decomposition continues apace, and inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that's found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.

So if things had progressed as expected, I should have gone to a Montréal high school named after an exploding pope. But he didn't explode after all. Bummer.
posted by maudlin at 10:26 AM on May 30, 2008

I went out with Mary Mazzarello in High School. Believe me, she's not incorruptible.
posted by Floydd at 10:41 AM on May 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

I wonder if any of these saints have been mummified (secretly or just by burial tradition) and then passed off as incorruptible? Or maybe by living as they have (fasting, low stress, etc..) has made their body decompose at a slower rate? Or the glass box they're living in is specially designed to slow down or to null the decomposition all together?

Why would they dig any of them up though? Just for curiosity sake?
posted by czechmate at 10:54 AM on May 30, 2008

Reminds me of Jeremy Bentham.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 11:10 AM on May 30, 2008

This is entertaining as mythology, but the Wikipedia article is way too credulous about it. The photos look like wax masks (and the Wikipedia article confirms that at least one of these corpses does have a wax mask).

Have any of these bodies been examined scientifically? There's a lot of speculation about how these corpses remain uncorrupted, but that's premature unless we've established that they actually do remain uncorrupted. Let some skeptics verify that they aren't wax sculptures, mummies, or some other kind of hoax. Then we can start speculating about miracles.
posted by greenie2600 at 11:29 AM on May 30, 2008

Hui Neng, no Catholic he.
posted by Abiezer at 12:08 PM on May 30, 2008

Catholics are weird.

Um... Some would argue that all religionists are weird.
posted by notreally at 12:27 PM on May 30, 2008

Reminds me of Jeremy Bentham.
Reminds me of my earlier comment.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:59 PM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Incorruptibles are typically found lifelike, moist, flexible, and contain a sweet scent that many say smells like roses or other flowers, for years after death.

Gah. This link is so gross.

The site's url is kind of kooky, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:09 PM on May 30, 2008

Found another one:
In 1805 the coffin was opened to see if the head had been buried with the embalmed body, and the Earl was lying, still young, with his severed head and its light brown hair still perfect. Unfortunately, the vault was not closed properly, and people in the neighbourhood visiting it, a blacksmith actually pulled out several teeth and sold them.
From this article on the wonderfully romantic Earls of Dilston. They removed his heart and buried it in his wife's family vault. (Hmmm, subject for a new this space)
posted by nax at 1:20 PM on May 30, 2008

Science once again baffled by obvious ancient bullshit.

"Who would believe this nonsense?" asks Science. Then, shrugging slightly, Science goes back to work doing stuff that matters.
posted by tkchrist at 1:48 PM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

The whole thing gives me the willies.
posted by Senator at 6:21 PM on May 30, 2008

this is an awesome post. a bit gruesome, but awesome nonetheless.

as a lapsed catholic, i grew up hearing about this--and believing the hype. i.e., only the very holy, which by Church definition = very catholic, were incorruptible. as an adult (and this is where the lapsed part of my being a catholic comes in), i just think the catholic church is pretty damn good at marketing what it wants people to believe. somehow i don't believe that mrmoonpie's jeremy bentham has the same pr company working for him.
posted by msconduct at 7:03 PM on May 30, 2008

I don't know why, but I feel like I should say something in this thread.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:56 PM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by The corpse in the library at 7:56 PM on May 30

Oh fuck. It won't decay and now it's got Internet access.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:09 PM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

We have a dead saint around here that regularly wears down his shoes, supposedly by running around doing saintly deeds. The locals find cursing the saintly slippers a most satisfying oath.
posted by ghost of a past number at 11:00 PM on May 30, 2008

Hey, the Infant of Prague customized my van.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 11:55 AM on May 31, 2008

For some reason, this seems more 7th day to me than Catholic.
posted by owhydididoit at 1:19 PM on May 31, 2008

Thought I'd throw this one in the mix, as no one is claiming sainthood for the corpse and the find is fairly modern St Bees Man of Cumbria
posted by Grrlscout at 5:53 AM on June 1, 2008

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