Incorruptibility
The incorrupt body of Saint Virginia Centurione.
The incorrupt body of Saint Virginia Centurione.

Incorruptibility is a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that supernatural intervention allows some human bodies to not undergo the normal process of decomposition after death. Bodies that reportedly undergo little or no decomposition are sometimes referred to as incorrupt or incorruptible (adjective) or as an incorruptible (noun). Although it is recognised as supernatural in Catholicism, it is no longer counted as a miracle in the recognition of a saint.1

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 and pleasant aroma. As of yet, none of these cases have been verified scientifically.

Incorruptibility in Christianity

In Catholic and Orthodox Christian cultures, if a body remains incorruptible after death, this is generally seen by those cultures to be a sign that the individual is a saint, although not every saint is expected to have an incorruptible corpse.

When the Roman Catholic Church recognized incorruptibles, a body was not deemed incorruptible if it had 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 (though some artificially preserved bodies, such as that of St Margaret of Cortona, were recognized by as Incorruptibles by mistake when records of their preservation were lost.)2 Incorruptible saints are claimed to 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 exhumation, 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, the 1880 novel by Dostoyevsky, the body of the newly-deceased Starets (monastic elder) 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.


Causes

The two main positions on incorruptibility 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 God as the body will be resurrected later.

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.


Instances of Claimed Incorruptibility

Among the saints and holy men and women whose bodies are said to be or have been incorrupt are:

Priests, Monastics and Laypersons

  • St Adrian of Ondrusov — Russian Orthodox monk and martyr
  • St Adrian of Poshekhon — Russian Orthodox monk and martyr
  • St Agnes of Montepulciano — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Alexander of Svir — Russian Orthodox monk
  • St Alphege — Roman Catholic
  • St Amphilochius of Pochayiv — Orthodox monk from western Ukraine, lived in Soviet times
  • Blessed André Bessette — Roman Catholic Holy Cross Brother
  • St Andrew Bobola - Roman Catholic Jesuit priest
  • St Angela Merici — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Angela of the Cross — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Angelina of Spoleto — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Anna Marie Taigi — Roman Catholic
  • Sts Anthony, John, and Eustathios — Russian Orthodox martyrs of Vilnius
  • St Benedict the Black — Roman Catholic monk
  • St Bernadette — visionary of Lourdes, Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Betrando de Genies — Roman Catholic
  • Blessed Broken Alberto Incogneus - Discordian
  • St Catherine of Bologna — Roman Catholic
  • St Catherine Labouré — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Catherine of Siena-Roman Catholic nun and mystic
  • St Catherine Tomás - Roman Catholic nun
  • St Cecilia — Roman Catholic martyr
  • St Charbel Maklouf — Maronite (Eastern Catholic) monk
  • St Charles Seeze — Roman Catholic monk, mystic and stigmatist
  • St Clare of Assisi — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Clare of Montefalco — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Dominic Barberi - Roman Catholic missionary to England
  • Sister Emilie — Church of England nun
  • St Francis of Paola — Roman Catholic friar
  • St Francis Xavier — Apostle of the Far East — Roman Catholic missionary
  • St Gaspar Louis Bertoni — Roman Catholic priest
  • Hallvard Vebjørnsson of Norway — Roman Catholic martyr from Lier, patron of Oslo
  • Blessed Imelda — Roman Catholic Dominican nun
  • St Isidore the Laborer3
  • Blessed Jacinta Marto, visionary at Fátima — Roman Catholic
  • St Jane Frances de Chantal — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Job of Pochayiv-Orthodox monk from western Ukraine
  • St John Bosco — Roman Catholic
  • St John Jacob of Hozevit - Roman Catholic
  • St John Vianney — Roman Catholic, Curé (parish priest) of Ars
  • Blessed Josaphata Hordashevska — Greek-Catholic nun from western Ukraine
  • St Joseph of Cupertino — Roman Catholic monk
  • Juliana Falconieri — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Louis Orione — Roman Catholic
  • Blessed Margaret of Castello — Roman Catholic
  • St Margaret Mary Alacoque — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Maria Angela of Astorch — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Maria Crucificada — Roman Catholic nun
  • Venerable Maria de Jesus de Ágreda — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Maria de Jesus Torres — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Maria de San Jose — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Maria Francisca Illagas — Roman Catholic nun
  • Venerable Maria Jesus Delgado — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Maria Margaret Caiani — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Maria Mazarello — Roman Catholic nun
  • Blessed Mary of the Divine Heart — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Matrona of Chios — Orthodox
  • St Miguel Febres Cordero — Roman Catholic
  • Blessed Narcisia de Jesus — Roman Catholic
  • St Nicholas of Tolentino — Roman Catholic
  • St Peter Julian Eymard — Roman Catholic priest
  • Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati — Third Order of St Dominic
  • St Pio of Pietrelcina — Roman Catholic priest
  • St Rita of Cascia — Roman Catholic nun
  • St Sabbas the Sanctified — monk venerated in Catholicism and Orthodoxy
  • St Salvator of Horta — Roman Catholic
  • Blessed Sebastian de Apparisio — Roman Catholic
  • St Sergius of Radonezh — Orthodox monk
  • Venerable Solanus Cassey — Roman Catholic
  • St Stanislaus Kostka — Roman Catholic
  • Blessed Stephen Bellesini — Roman Catholic priest
  • St Sunniva of Norway — Roman Catholic martyr, from Selja island
  • St Thorlac of Iceland — Roman Catholic bishop of Skalholt
  • St Ursula Ledóchowska — Roman Catholic nun
  • 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
  • St Virginia Centurione Bracelli — Roman Catholic
  • Vissarion Korkoliacos — Greek Orthodox monk
  • St Zita — Roman Catholic
  • Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz — German Knight

Popes, Bishops and Patriarchs

  • Pope Blessed Innocent XI - Roman Catholic Pope. Innocent XI died in 1689 and when exhumed from his tomb for beatification, reportedly well preserved. Today his body lies with the body of Pope St Pius X at the Vatican. The face and hands are lined with a silver coating.
  • Pope Saint Pius V — Roman Catholic Pope
  • Pope Blessed Pius IX — Roman Catholic Pope
  • Pope Saint Pius X — Roman Catholic Pope
  • Pope Blessed John XXIII — Roman Catholic Pope
  • St Tikhon — Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow
  • Claudius of Besançon — French bishop and abbot
  • St Cuthbert — Anglo-Saxon, venerated by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans
  • Mgr Gabriel Manek SVD — Roman Catholic Archibishop of Flores, Indonesia (191889)
  • St Innocent — Orthodox bishop of Irkutsk
  • St John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco — Orthodox archbishop
  • St Josaphat Kuntsevych — Greek-Catholic metropolitan from Ukraine, martyr, murdered in Polotsk, relics enshrined in Rome
  • St Raphael (Hawaweeny) of Brooklyn — Orthodox bishop
  • St Ubaldo Gubbio — Roman Catholic bishop
  • St Pishoy — Coptic Orthodox 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 reportedly 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 Nidaros Cathedral.
  • St Edmund I of England, king of East Anglia. In c915 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 is claimed to still be incorrupt. Many miracles were reported at his tomb, and Clement X canonized him in 1671.
  • St Casimir, Patron Saint of Poland and Lithuania — Roman Catholic
  • St Elizabeth of Portugal, queen consort of Portugal — Roman Catholic
  • Blessed Mafalda of Portugal, queen consort of Castile — Roman Catholic

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