“A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk.” – James Joyce
There are certain protocols one is expected to follow when they get busy dying. Something kills you. You get a party. Your kids divide up your stuff. Then you rot. This is the accepted order of things. Unfortunately, there are always a bunch of mavericks who want to buck the trend. Oh, they shuffle off into the dying of the light and enjoy all the nice things friends and family say over their corpse, but then decide they find the whole decaying part of being a lifeless body a bit distasteful, and steadfastly refuse to cooperate. These folks, heavily weighted towards that insufferably pious gang we call Catholic saints (although not exclusively) find the desiccation and disintegration that commences upon death to be a tad déclassé, and exercise an option most of us upstanding citizens were not aware of, that is, they refuse to rot. In common folkloric parlance, we call them “The Incorruptibles”, which would also make a great name for a league of superheroes, although it’s hard to fight the forces of evil when your sole superpower is to lay there and not decompose. From the 64 A.D. Roman martyrs Gervasius and Protasius to Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, not to mention the occasional Buddhist monk, rather than agreeably going the way of all mortal flesh and feeding the worms, a select few pointedly opt out of all this “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” nonsense in a post-life form of performance art intended to rudely poke a finger in the eye of the rest of us mundane corruptible types, as if dying was not evidence enough of failure. Not everyone can die immaculately.
I for one plan to putrefy. I’ve spent the better portion of my life cleaning up other people’s messes (managers, employees, customers, and toddlers most notably), and it’s only fair that my final act should be to go to my eternal rest in as disorderly and unsavory a way as possible. Of course, most will never witness this since it would be downright rude to dig up my corpse, but rest assured, were you so impolite as to exhume me, I guarantee the inside of my coffin will be little better than the average state university dormitory room, with the same degree of unidentifiable liquids, desiccated organic material, and unholy stench. Just saying. Don’t dig me up. Take my word for it. Now in the Middle Ages, they had different standards of etiquette if we take the infamous “Cadaver Synod” (Synodus Horrenda) conducted by Pope Stephen VI in 897 A.D. as any indication. Pope Stephen VI had the body of his predecessor Pope Formosus (816-896 A.D.) disinterred, and placed on trial for violating canon law, perjury, and illegally serving as a bishop. Obviously they found him guilty, annulled the validity of his papacy, cut him into pieces, and cast the remains into the Tiber River, as the corpse understandably had nothing to say in its own defense. Presumably, the trial was short and rather smelly, so they probably added odoriferous contempt of court to the list of charges. As a warning to those of you who think this was a good idea, Pope Stephen VI was shortly later deposed, imprisoned, and strangled. The moral of the story is that picking on a dead person is bad form. You look like a jerk and the dead guy really has nothing to lose. In December 897 A.D. Pope Theodore II overturned the rulings of the Cadaver Synod, recovered the body parts of Formosus from the Tiber, and had him reburied under St. Peter’s Basilica in full papal vestments. Score one for the dead defendant on appeal. A few hundred years earlier, Archbishop of Milan Aurelius Ambrosius (340-397 A.D.) had a slightly less spiteful, albeit nutty reason for an exhumation, and was shocked to discover that some corpses are more equal than others, when he dug up the bodies of two notable Christian martyrs and saints, scourged and beheaded by everyone’s favorite psychopathic Emperor and amatuer fiddler, Nero.
Aurelius Ambrosius (later Saint Ambrose and presumably patron saint of crime scene investigators), wasn’t your garden variety lunatic and necrophiliac. He had moxy. You see, Ambrosius had himself what you call one of them prophetic dreams that told him where he could find some saintly relics (usually meaning the body parts of some unfortunate martyr) to consecrate his newly built Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. This led him to root around in the cemetery of the Church of Saints Nabor and Felix, where he unearthed the bodies of Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Gervasius and Protasius didn’t do anything especially saintly, rather they were the twin sons of two other martyrs, Saint Vitalis (racked and burned alive for encouraging Saint Ursicinus of Ravenna to man up and take his execution like a boss) and Saint Valeria (beheaded for deigning to bury other Christian martyrs and refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods). Their sons Gervasius and Protasius were subsequently imprisoned, and later wacked, but were probably rather innocent in the whole matter of theology, and really just had questionable taste in parents. When Ambrosius’ ghouls found their bodies, they were a bit surprised that in some 200 years, the boy’s bodies had remained in a remarkably pristine state. Ambrosius related the story in a letter to his sister.
Why should I use many words? God favoured us, for even the clergy were afraid who were bidden to clear away the earth from the spot before the chancel screen of Saints Felix and Nabor. I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some on whom hands were to be laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place. We found two men of marvellous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much blood. During the whole of those two days there was an enormous concourse of people. Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on transferred them to the basilica of Fausta, where watch was kept during the night, and some received the laying on of hands. On the following day we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. I addressed the people then as follows: When I considered the immense and unprecedented numbers of you who are here gathered together, and the gifts of divine grace which have shone forth in the holy martyrs, I must confess that I felt myself unequal to this task, and that I could not express in words what we can scarcely conceive in our minds or take in with our eyes. But when the course of holy Scripture began to be read, the Holy Spirit Who spake in the prophets granted me to utter something worthy of so great a gathering, of your expectations, and of the merits of the holy martyrs (Amborse of Milan, Letter 22, “The Finding of SS. Gervasius and Protasius”, 386 A.D.)
The eminent Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) was just a lad, but was reportedly on hand to witness the incorruptible bodies of Gervasius and Protasius when they were unearthed and shipped off as holy relics to the Basilica of Fausta in Bologna (where daddy Vitalis was entombed). He mentions this in his Confessions, along with a somewhat fawning praise of God for the miracle, but that’s to be expected because sucking up to the Big Guy is how Augustine rolled.
Then didst Thou by a vision discover to Thy forenamed Bishop, where the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius’ the martyrs lay hid, (whom Thou hadst in Thy secret treasury stored uncorrupted so many years,) whence Thou mightest seasonably produce them to repress the fury of a woman, but an Empress. For when they were discovered and dug up, and with due honour translated to the Ambrosian Basilica, not only they who were vexed with unclean spirits (the devils confessing themselves) were cured, but a certain man, who had for many years been blind, a citizen, and well known to the city, asking and hearing the reason of the people’s confused joy, sprang forth, desiring his guide to lead him thither. Led thither, he begged to be allowed to touch with his handkerchief the bier of Thy saints, whose death is precious in Thy sight. Which when he had done, and put to his eyes, they were forthwith opened. Thence did the fame spread, thence Thy praises glowed, shone; thence the mind of that enemy, though not turned to the soundness of believing, was yet turned back from her fury of persecuting. Thanks to Thee, O my God. Whence and whither hast Thou thus led my remembrance, that I should confess these things also unto Thee? Which great though they be, I had passed by in forgetfulness. And yet then, when the odour of Thy ointments was so fragrant, did we not run after Thee. Therefore did I more weep among the singing of Thy Hymns, formerly sighing after Thee, and at length breathing in Thee, as far as the breath may enter into this our house of grass (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Bk. IX, Ch. VII).
Between Ambrose and Augustine, we are talking about some serious theological heavy hitters vouching for the incorruptibility of poor Gervasius and Protasius. Another puzzling aspect of many of our incorruptibles is that not only do they refuse to spoil like a well-behaved, dead carbon-based organism or strawberries the day after you buy them, they are often noted as exuding a pleasant fragrance. To me, this simply adds insult to injury. While the rest of us rot and smell like wet socks, these folks serenely lay about smelling like roses. Most of us have trouble smelling that good when we’re alive. What’s more annoying is that the Catholic Church has ample evidence that the conditions these incorruptible creatures were buried in often would be more likely to expedite the process of decomposition than to set up the perfect circumstances for preservation. As noted by Fred Cicetti, “Through history, the bodies of a considerable number of deceased Catholic Saints and other blessed persons, have not undergone the normal processes of disintegration. Without any kind mummification or embalming methods, their corpses have thus remained incorrupt, a few even after 1500 years. The accounts of incorruptible bodies are a part of Christian history from the first century right through to the 21st. Many of those, whose bodies have been found incorrupt, had died either by violence or diseases, conditions which normally would encourage the disintegration processes rather than preserve the bodies. Some had been buried in close proximity to other bodies that decomposed normally. Some had been consigned to the bare earth. Others survived burial in such damp conditions that their clothes rotted off their intact bodies. Some had been lying in lime, water or left in the open. But apparently unaffected by exterior influences, the bodies were found preserved as if they were still alive”.
Isidore the Farmer (the Catalan Saint and patron saint of Madrid, not the Archbishop of Seville) went to meet his maker in 1130 A.D. He was well known as a friend to the poor and animals. He was buried directly in the earth without the benefit of a coffin. In 1170 A.D. he was exhumed, in the interest of finding him a more appropriate resting place, and lo and behold, he hadn’t decayed and smelled of perfume. In 1622, he was canonized, so they dug him up yet again, and after 500 years he still looked better than most of us on the average morning. Lest you think this is a rare occurrence among Catholic saints, or those soon to be sainted, the Church has recorded over 100 cases of incorruptibility, but some corpses really step up their game, such as Maronite monk and Lebanese saint Charbel Makhlouf. Charbel had a seizure while giving mass in Lebanon in 1898 A.D., and was buried without embalming or a coffin, as was the custom for Maronite monks. The cemetery he was buried in apparently had awful drainage problems, and some few months later, Charbel’s body was found floating in a grave filled with muddy water, looking fresh and spry, yet still very dead. Show off. Then of course, there is the rock star of incorruptibility, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, Christian mystic who as a fourteen year old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous has a visitation from the Virgin Mary in the caves at Massabielle near Lourdes, France which is to this day why Lourdes is such a popular place to travel in search of miracles for the faithful. Bernadette died in 1879, but since then has absolutely refused to decay. You go girl. She’s been exhumed three times between 1879-1925, and seems to be in in perfectly good shape, albeit still dead. In 1925, when she was exhumed for the last time to move her to a crystal reliquary, she was fully intact and had suffered little decay, but was looking a little peeked, so they did a few wax touch-ups, but still she was looking pretty good, considering she’s been dead for 46 years and probably never touched a preservative in her life. More importantly, it was noted that she actually looked better dead than she had when she was alive.
It is astonishing what stress is laid on this incorruptibility of the body of the saints. Thus Herbert Thurston thinks it worthwhile, in a very condensed article on Lourdes, to record, of Bernadette Soubirous: “It is noteworthy that, though her body at the time of death (1879) was covered with tumors and sores, it was found, when the remains were officially examined in1909, thirty years afterwards, entire and free from corruption (Warfield, 1918, p270).
While many are quick to ascribe incorruptibility to an extremely effective Catholic propaganda machine (they did invent the term “propaganda”, after all), they have also reported some rather embarrassing instances of incorruptibility, given that it seems to be an important part of sainthood. For instance, Archbishop of Milan during World War II, Cardinal Schuster (1880-1954), close buddy of Mussolini and devoted fascist, was found to be still dead, but incorrupt in 1985. The Vatican, which gets props for consistency, but certainly not for conscience went ahead and beatified him anyway in 1996. Apparently failing to decompose trumps politics when it comes to canonization, although it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way for U.S. Senator John McCain. And let’s not forget that there are a number of incorruptible dead people from a variety of other faiths, such as the relatively well preserved Siberian monk Hambo Lama Itigelov exhumed in 2002. In fact that are an awful lot of Buddhist monks looking “pretty fly for a dead guy” hanging about, albeit most are looking fairly dehydrated, but no self-respecting Buddhist monk is going to be all that bothered with superficial appearances, even when alive. Probably matters a lot less to them when they’re dead.
Not to speak ill of the deceased, but let’s face facts. These incorruptible corpses are just making the rest of us look bad. It’s like we don’t have to rot, but the rest of us are just too lazy after we die to do anything about it. And how badly does that suck, when the only real upside to pushing up daisies is that nobody expects you to show up at work the next day, get the groceries, or pay the bills? Who wants a full time job for eternity that consists entirely of not rotting? The real problem is that there is nothing we can really do about those select few that choose not to decay. You can’t argue with them, question their judgment, or point out how they make the rest of us feel inadequate even in death, for as Russian Journalist Alexander Herzen pointed out, “There is nothing in the world more stubborn than a corpse; you can hit it, you can knock it to pieces, but you cannot convince it”.
Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Confessions. London: Dent , 1907
Schaff, Philip. “Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters”. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, V.10. Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.
Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge, 1851-1921. Counterfeit Miracles. New York: C. Scribner’s, 1918.