"Undo dust thou shalt return ... " unless you are incorruptible!

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"Unto dust thou shalt return" by Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh (CatholicMom.com)

The incorrupt body of St. Bernadette of Lourdes, by Itto Ogami [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My niece just returned from visiting Rome and she talked of how many churches have saints with incorruptible bodies or body parts on display. It was fascinating to her and she and her husband questioned the point of it.

The incorruptibility of the Saints is a miraculous phenomenon whereby the human body is not subjected to the natural process of decomposition after death and is suspended from decay either temporarily or permanently through the Divine Will of God. (Wikipedia)

Is this concept of incorruptible bodies really possible, or is this a hoax perpetrated by the Catholic Church?

I admit to finding this a very interesting subject. Some Catholics believe incorruptible bodies are  another sign from God of miracles that cannot be explained by science showing God’s presence in the world. Skeptics, of course, don’t agree and relentlessly try to search for other explanations behind the phenomenon.

Saint Catherine of Bologna died in 1463 and was initially buried in the ground without a casket. After a few weeks she was dug up showing no signs of decay. She sits at a chair among candles at the chapel of Poor Clares. Even though her skin is browned and her appearance is a little shriveled, her physical integrating hasn’t been explained by science. She’s been there since the year 1500.

Saint Silvan is on display in Dubrovnik, Croatia. He was martyred in the fourth century. After 1700 years his body remains intact. His eyebrows are still in place, his curly hair remains lifelike to this day, and his skin and lips retain a remarkable amount of natural color. Skeptics believe these bodies are merely waxed figures put on display, but the Catholic Church admits to only preserving them to a point. The reality remains: These incorruptible bodies are real.

Saint Bernadette Soubirous, also known as Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, was the firstborn daughter of a miller from Lourdes, and is best known for experiencing Marian apparitions of a a beautiful lady who asked for a chapel to be built at the nearby cave-grotto at Massabielle. Saint Bernadette’s is one of the most famous incorruptible bodies. She died at the age of 35. She had several visions of “a beautiful lady,” only to learn later she was being visited by Mary, the mother of Jesus — or as it was explained to her, “the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette died in 1879 and was exhumed under candidacy of beatification in 1909. Her body was incorrupt. She was reinterred in her crypt and dug up again in 1919 and again in 1923. Her organs were still soft. She was placed on display in a convent at St. Gilbard in Nevers, France, where she remains today.

There is no explanation from scientists why she has remained so well-preserved without the aid of embalming or environmental conditions. Even though it does appear that her hands have had a wax-like substance to help preserve their appearance, the rest of her body is still as it was when she died. Bernadette looks as beautiful today as she did in 1879.

In the book entitled The Incorruptibles, Catholic author Joan Carroll Cruz has done extensive research on this subject:

Many bodies remained fresh and flexible for years, or even centuries. After explaining both natural and artificial mummification, the incorruption of the saints’ bodies fits neither category but rather constitutes a much greater phenomenon that is unexplained by modern science to this day.

In her book, Cruz presents 102 canonized saints, summarizing their lives, the discovery of their incorruption, and investigations by Church and medical authorities. She explains:

The incorruptible bodies of saints are a consoling sign of Christ’s victory over death, a confirmation of the dogma of the Resurrection of the Body, a sign that the Saints are still with us in the Mystical Body of Christ, and proof of the truth of the Catholic Faith-for only in the Catholic Church do we find this phenomenon.

Is the explanation as simple as this?

The truth is that these occurrences cannot be understood outside of Divine intervention on behalf of these saints, as the laws of nature have been suspended on behalf of the incorruptible saints. Perhaps it is that God is visibly showing us his pleasure with these saints? Still, it is a physical manifestation of God’s love, and the incorruptible saints console us by their presence, seeming to plead with us to likewise make ourselves pleasing to God in all ways.

When I grew up. we were taught by the nuns that we needed to be “Christlike” and this would be our path to heaven. Being a good person is not enough. Faith is not an insurance policy that states if we are good most of the time we will get to heaven. It’s all about bringing heaven to earth. Jesus taught about building the Kingdom of God right here and now, to be a part of what God is doing on earth.

Saints have always been an example encouraging us to be as “Christlike” as we can. Seeing them today, even though they have been gone for hundreds of years, or even longer in some cases, only reminds us about their sacrifices and their love of God. That’s why I believe many remain incorrupt!


Copyright 2019 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh

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About Author

Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh (Cathy) completed her education in Special Education and English and now works as an Agent in the Insurance Industry. A mother and Grandmother, Cathy grew up in a large Catholic family and has spent the last 30 years as a caregiver for her husband, Jack. She is a cancer survivor which inspired her to begin writing six years ago.

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