How can a corpse be incorruptible?

By: Josh Clark  | 
Incorruptible Saint Padre Pio.
Not everyone ends up as worm food. Meet Saint Padre Pio, who died in 1968. This photo was taken of the saint in Italy in April 2008. Read on to find out how someone’s body can be uncorrupted after death.
Marco Secchi/Scoopt/Getty Images

It's a fact: Carbon-based life forms here on Earth are eventually going to cease to exist. And that includes you and me. Regardless of where you reckon your soul will travel (or even if you believe you have a soul), one thing's guaranteed. That vessel we call a body is going to undergo some unpleasant changes after you die.

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.

If all of this sounds a bit like hooey, take note: There are churches all over the world today in which you can see incorruptibles on display. Some have begun to decay, and others are still fighting the process of decomposition, even hundreds of years after their deaths.


Incorruptibles vs. Mummies

Guanajuato infant mummies
A 1955 photo of some of the infant mummies exhumed from Panteon cemetery in Guanajuato, Mexico.
George Pickow/Three Lions/Getty Images

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.

While it sounds like a tedious process, mummification can also happen accidentally. In the 19th century, it was customary for the dead to remain interred for five years before being exhumed and cremated. And in 1865, when the first residents of Guanajuato, Mexico, were exhumed, the town was in for a surprise. Undertakers discovered that unembalmed corpses buried in the town graveyard weren't decomposing -- they were mummified. The salty, dry soil in the graveyard is responsible for the mummies now on display at the famous museum in town [source: Ball]. Another case of an incidental mummy is the Tollund Man, a 2,000-year-old prehistoric man. He was hanged in Denmark, and in 1950, his body was discovered -- remarkably preserved from the peat bog into which it had been dumped. Even his fine hair and beard are intact [source: Silkeborg Public Library].


These examples of preserved humans share a common theme: Science can point to the means (either intentional or environmental) by which they were preserved. 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. Yet, some of these incorruptibles met violent ends or died from ravaging diseases that should have accelerated -- not deterred -- decomposition [source: Ferrari].

Because incorruptibility qualified as one of the prerequisites for sainthood, once a person became a candidate, he or she was disinterred for inspection. At these exhumations (which continued well into the 20th century), it was canonical policy to have representatives from the Church, physicians and secular citizens present in order to provide credibility to the findings. Many of those corpses who were found uncorrupted were sainted.

The downside to having an incorruptible corpse? You can't exactly rest in peace. Uncorrupted saints were -- and still are -- a big attraction for religious pilgrims looking to encounter evidence of the Holy Spirit firsthand. The only problem is there are a lot more Catholic parishes than there are incorruptible corpses. As a result, these inexplicably preserved saints were dismembered, and their body parts were sent to all reaches of the globe. A hand may have ended up at one church, while the heart and head may have been sent to others.

There are a number of saints who remain in one piece, though. They are usually displayed in reliquaries -- enclosed glass coffins -- generally on display in front of or behind a church's altar.