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The body of Saint Virginia Centurione, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church.

Incorruptibility is a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that supernatural intervention allows some human bodies to avoid the normal process of decomposition after death. Bodies that reportedly undergo little or no decomposition are sometimes referred to as incorrupt or incorruptible (adjective) or as an incorruptible (noun). Although it is recognised as supernatural in Catholicism, it is no longer counted as a miracle in the recognition of a saint.[1]

Incorruptibility is seen as distinct from the good preservation of a body, or mummification. Incorruptible bodies are often said to have the Odour of Sanctity, exuding a sweet and pleasant aroma. As of yet, none of these cases have been verified scientifically.

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Incorruptibility in Christianity

In Catholic and Orthodox church, if a body remains incorruptible after death, this is generally seen by Catholic and Orthodox Christian cultures to be a sign that the individual is a saint, although not every saint is expected to have an incorruptible corpse.

When the Catholic Church recognized incorruptibles, a body was not deemed incorruptible if it had undergone an embalming. As such, although the body of Pope John XXIII remains in a remarkably intact state, after its exhumation, Church officials quickly pointed out that the pope's body had been embalmed and that there was a lack of oxygen in his sealed triple coffin.

In the Orthodox Church, incorruptibility continues to be an important element in the process of canonization (q.v.). An important distinction is made between natural mummification and supernatural incorruptibility. In The Brothers Karamazov, the 1880 novel by Dostoyevsky, the body of the newly-deceased Starets (monastic elder) Zossima began to decay noticeably even during his funeral wake, which caused a great scandal in his monastery and among the townsfolk, who fully expected that he would be incorrupt.

Causes

The two main positions on incorruptibility can be summarized as an argument for a spiritual cause, or an argument for a physical or environmental cause.

The argument for a spiritual cause may include a belief that the pious nature of the individual in some way permeated the flesh (a metaphysical cause having a physical effect), or a belief that decomposition was prevented by the intervention of God, or some other supernatural agent, as the body will be resurrected later.

The argument for a physical cause includes a belief that the corpse has been subjected to environmental conditions such that decomposition is significantly slowed. There are a number of ways of retarding decomposition, but the mechanism commonly stated is that of saponification. Another environmental condition that can be the cause of retarding decomposition is a burial ground that is cool and dry. The retardation of decomposition also occurs if the ground is composed of soil that is high in certain compounds that bring the bodies' moisture to the surface of the skin. It is also suggested that bodies with low amounts of muscle and body fat tend to resist decomposition better.

Instances of claimed incorruptibility

Among the saints and holy men and women whose bodies are said to be or have been incorrupt are (also see list in The Incorruptibles):

Priests, monastics and laypersons

The body of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes with wax face and hand coverings, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. January 7, 1844 – d. April 16, 1879).
The body of Saint John Mary Vianney wearing a wax mask, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. 8 May 1786 – d. 4 August 1859).
The body of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina wearing a silicone mask, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. 25 May 1887 – d. 23 September 1968).
The body of Saint Zita, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (born c. 1218 - d. 27 April 1272).
The body of Saint Catherine Labouré, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. May 2, 1806 – d. December 31, 1876).
The body of Venerable María de Jesús de Ágreda, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. April 2, 1602 – d. May 24, 1665).

Popes, Bishops and Patriarchs

References

See also

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