Incorruptible Saints Explained: Why Can’t Their Bodies Decay?

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Our bodies are not permanent. After we die, they decompose over time. 

Or, at least, that’s what usually happens. It may not always be the case. Incorruptible saints are saints whose bodies allegedly don’t decompose. At least, not as much as most.

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The idea that some bodies remain more or less in the same condition they were in when a person died doesn’t exactly align with our understanding of science. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the bodies of some saints have remained relatively preserved long after we would have expected them to break down.

Are you curious to know why? This guide will shed some light on the topic, explaining what incorruptibility is, what might explain it, and why many consider it to be a significant phenomenon.

Why Are Some Saints Incorruptible?

Early Catholics who discovered incorruptible saints first attributed their lack of decomposition to a miracle from God.

Consider the example of Saint Zita. For centuries after her death, many Catholics urged the church to make her a saint. To do so, the Church would first have to exhume the body.

Saint Zita had been dead for nearly 300 years when this happened. However, her body was completely intact. The Church and other Catholics naturally considered this to be miraculous. Some even claimed that Saint Zita’s body cured blindness and infertility.

We don’t have to trust centuries-old claims to believe the basics of this story are true. Saint Zita’s body remains on display in Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca, although the Church has since mummified it.

In Catholicism 

The previous section explained how Catholics long thought of incorruptibility as a miracle. To some degree, that is changing, at least as far as the Church’s official stance is concerned.

Starting about 30 years ago, the Vatican began re-examining the Incorruptibles from a more scientific perspective. Specialists ranging from pathologists to radiologists helped the Church more clearly determine why the bodies of some saints resist decay.

Their research indicates that many factors can explain this phenomenon. For instance, it’s important to remember that many eventual saints also had plenty of followers in life, long before the Church canonized them. It appears that their followers mummified them in some instances.

Researchers explain other cases by revealing how a combination of environmental factors helped to guard against decomposition. There are cases where researchers can’t find any signs that humans were involved in preserving a body.

That’s not to say that Catholics no longer consider incorruptibility to be important. On the contrary, some explain that a miraculous event doesn’t necessarily need to be an impossible event. They insist that God can perform miracles through natural means.

The idea of incorruptibility actually ties in with major Catholic beliefs. According to Catholicism, the body is more than just a vessel.

Even today, many Catholics still believe in the concept of “Resurrection of the Flesh.” This is the belief that the bodies of the dead can rise again. Thus, it makes sense that Catholics would consider incorruptibility to be a major sign of God’s presence in the world.

Some Catholic leaders and scholars also establish certain criteria for determining if a saint is an Incorruptible.

For example, some believe that a body is not an Incorruptible if it has undergone any sort of embalming process. They also claim a saint is not Incorruptible if a corpse has stiffened, as any other person’s typically would.

In Eastern Orthodox

It’s worth noting that Catholicism is not the only branch of Christianity that emphasizes the significance of Incorruptible saints. Eastern Orthodox Christians also hold Incorruptibles in high regard. Specifically, they often associate Incorruptibles with miracles of healing.

Additionally, Eastern Orthodox Christians strongly consider incorruptibility to be an important factor when determining whether to canonize someone. That said, incorruptibility is not required for canonization, and it doesn’t guarantee canonization. 

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Famous Incorruptible Saints

The Church recognizes approximately 100 saints as being Incorruptibles. Particularly noteworthy Incorruptibles include:

Saint Cecilia

Some historians believe Saint Cecilia is the first saint whose body showed signs of incorruptibility. In fact, stories allege that Saint Cecilia demonstrated miraculous physical abilities even in life.

Saint Cecilia was a young woman who remained a virgin despite being married. Over the course of her short life, she convinced her husband and others to convert to Catholicism.

When Christian prosecutors demanded they renounce Catholicism, those converted by Saint Cecilia refused. The prosecutors killed them and arrested Saint Cecilia for burying them, as would be proper for a Catholic funeral.

Saint Cecilia’s captors also gave her the option to renounce her faith. Like the others, she refused.

When her captors planned to execute her, they decided that because she was a young woman, they would attempt to do so with a less violent method than was common at the time. They locked her in her home’s vapor bath assuming she would suffocate.

This didn’t happen. For an entire day and night, she endured without showing any signs of harm or major distress. 

This caused her captors to change their minds. They enlisted the help of an experienced executioner, but he also failed. Despite striking her neck with a sword three times, he was unable to behead her, and fled the scene.

Saint Cecilia survived for three days and nights in this condition. She was wounded but managed to lie down and face the floor, with her fingers positioned to represent the Holy Trinity.

Centuries later, Cardinal Sfondrato ordered the restoration of certain areas of the basilica where Saint Cecilia was buried. This required exhuming her body. Upon opening her casket, the Cardinal found her body in the same position and state it was in when she died.

Saint Edward the Confessor

Saint Edward the Confessor is another noteworthy Incorruptible. His exhumation 36 years after his death astonished onlookers who found his body to be completely incorrupt.

However, Saint Edward is particularly significant because his body is the only body of a saint currently enshrined in Westminster Abbey.

Saint Anthony of Padua

Saint Anthony of Padua is worth including in a list of famous Incorruptibles because his story reveals interesting details about how the Church treats this subject.

When the Church exhumed his body 336 years after his death, most of it did show signs of corruption. However, Saint Anthony’s tongue did not. The Church recognized this as a sign that his teachings were so perfect that the tongue which gave them voice could not decay. 

Incorruptible Saints Today

Again, many modern perspectives on Incorruptible saints no longer reflect the same exact spiritual beliefs that previous generations held. Even Vatican officials consider the possibility that the Incorruptibles may have remained incorrupt as a result of natural causes. Once again, they simply argue that God is responsible for those causes.

In some cases, the Church has also covered the faces of Incorruptibles in wax masks as they begin to decay. Some researchers point out that, even if someone is a Saint, disturbing their coffin or casket can leave them vulnerable to corruption and decomposition.

Regardless, many of the bodies of Incorruptibles remain on display throughout the world. Devout believers visit them to see for themselves the phenomenon that has played such an important role in their faith.

Where you can find them

Do you want to see an Incorruptible too? If so, you have many options from which to choose. Although this isn’t a comprehensive travel guide, the following points will help you better understand where you should go to see an Incorruptible in person.

In Europe (Italy, and Spain)

Most Incorruptible saints are located in Italian reliquaries and similar settings. For example, the Dominican Church of San Marco is home to the mummified remains of St. Antoninus. They lie on display in a glass coffin. 

Saint Rita of Cascia is another remarkably preserved saint. Appropriately, her shrine is on display at the Basilica of Cascia, in Cascia, Italy.

Luckily, Italy isn’t the only spot where you can view an Incorruptible. The Cathedral of Seville in Spain houses the incorrupt body of Saint Ferdinand III.

In Mexico

If you’re traveling to Mexico, head to the Church of Saint Francis in Puebla. You’ll find the permanent display of Blessed Sebastian of Aparicio. Although not technically a saint, his body is incorrupt, and he remains an important figure in Catholicism.

In the U.S.

You won’t have much luck finding a genuine Incorruptible in the U.S. However, the Maria Stein Shrine of Holy Relics, in Maria Stein, Ohio, does offer guests the opportunity to see the remains of Saint Victoria.

Technically, she’s not incorrupt, as her body is covered in wax. That said, covering parts of a body in wax has been a common practice with some actual Incorruptibles. Seeing Saint Victoria is thus not very different from seeing another Incorruptible.

A Mystery That Transcends Death

The phenomenon of incorruptibility continues to fascinate Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians throughout the world. Some believe their condition is simply a natural development that nevertheless represents God’s work. Others believe them to be truly supernatural. Regardless, they serve as reminders that death comes to all, but you don’t need to think of it as the end.


Sources

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  10. “St. Anthony of Padua.” Catholic.org, Catholic Online, www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=24
  11. “The Precious Pearl.” SaintRitaShrine.org, The National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, www.saintritashrine.org/life-of-saint-rita 
  12. “The Relic of St. Antoninus.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-relic-of-st-antoninus-florence-italy
  13. “The Wax-Encased Remains of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-waxencased-remains-of-blessed-anna-maria-taigi-rome-italy
  14. “What the Early Church Believed: Resurrection of the Body.” Catholic.org, Catholic Answers, 10 August 2004, www.catholic.com/tract/resurrection-of-the-body 
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