The Catholic church has a number of… interesting… traditions. One of them is the veneration of the mortal remains of those considered to be saints by the Church. In many cases, the bodies of saints have been dug up years or centuries after their death to be reburied in places of honor or to be chopped up into holy relics. Sometimes, they’re never even buried in the first place, if they’re believed to be holy enough to begin with.
When this happens, the bodies are sometimes found to be in a state of relative preservation. Having not been reduced to bones or dust in a matter of decades, as bodies often are, this is traditionally seen as a miraculous action and proof of their holiness and the special treatment that god has given their bodies even after death. It is believed that their spiritual purity transcends the physical, and apparently makes them unpalatable to bacteria (although the role of microbes in decay was not known in centuries past.)
The term incorruptibility is used to describe these alleged supernaturally preserved bodies. Many are also claimed to produce the Odour of Sanctity – a pleasant floral smell, rather than the smell of decay. However, this remains unverified and, even if true, could just be an example of unusual smelling mold.
Despite the increasing understanding of how material decays, today many in the catholic church continue to venerate the bodies of saints, which can be viewed in gilded glass coffins around the world. Many see this is proof of the work of god and the holiness of the saints themselves.
Yet a closer look at some o the best known examples shows that things are not really so miraculous and most of the bodies are far from perfectly preserved.
To this day, the allegedly preserved bodies of saints
Things that can prevent decay:
- Drying – By far the most common form of natural preservation, if a body is placed in a dry area or has air circulation, such as might be the case if it is not buried, the tissues may dry out. This stunts microbial activity and keeps the body from decaying.
- Adipocere – Also known as “grave wax” or “mortuary wax”, the process occurs when bacterial hydrolysis converts body fats into a stable organic substance composed of fatty acids. The material is described as being similar to wax or soap. The process occurs in cold damp environments and may be exacerbated by mineral activity.
- Intentional Embalming - Embalming of one type or another has been around for centuries. Modern embalming is done primarily to prevent decay of a body while it is transported to burial or during a time that it lays in state. It includes the infusion of the body with chemicals such as formaldehyde, which can fix tissue and inhibit decay. This type of embalming has been around for more than a century.
- Other environmental conditions – Numerous compounds and conditions are known to occur which may result in decay being inhibited. Toxic heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury may have been used in years past in caskets or burial preparations and can inhibit microbial activity. Acidic conditions, such as those found in peat bogs are well known for their ability to preserve organic material. Other local minerals or conditions may play a role.
Some famous examples and the reality of what likely caused the bodies from decaying: