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May 24 2010

Religion and evidence-4: Incorruptibility of the bodies of saints

The existence of bodies which allegedly do not undergo decay after death (i.e. ‘incorruptible bodies‘) was something I was made aware of only a few months ago but is apparently fairly well known in the religious community, especially among Catholics, and is taken as a miraculous sign from god. The Catholic Church used to make incorruptibility one of the possible criteria in support of claims for sainthood, and so exhumation of the bodies was once a regular part of the canonization process. But never having been a Catholic, I had been totally unaware of this until my friend drew my attention to it.

Even taking incorruptibility at face value as a deliberate act of god, I must admit that I found it a little odd as to why god would choose to perform such a bizarre and useless miracle. After all, what is the point in preventing the decay of a buried corpse? What is god (or the dead person for that matter) going to gain by doing it other than just to show his power, as a kind of magic trick?

In fact, this kind of interest in dead bodies adds further weight to the idea of Christianity as a kind of death cult. After all the most recognizable symbol of that religion is the crucifix, with Jesus looking agonized while dying on the cross. The cross itself, a symbol of torture and death, is worn around the necks of believers. (Comedian Lenny Bruce said, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”) The whole communion rite, with its eating of the flesh and blood of Jesus (whether symbolically or otherwise), signifies a preoccupation with death and dead bodies that is more than a little strange and positively creepy.

Devout Catholics tend to believe in the miraculous powers of the ‘relics’ of holy people and these relics often consist of bits of their dead bodies, although items of clothing are also used. As Jacalyn Duffin writes in her book Medical Miracles (2009), “Regular visitors to Catholic churches expect to find the bodies of saints and would-be saints displayed and venerated as holy relics… Beyond the miraculous preservation of the corpse itself might be many healings attributed to touching or seeing it.” (p. 102)

But getting back to the incorruptibility of the corpses of saintly Catholics, at least it was offered as evidence for god and so needs to be examined. So what is going on here? Is it a genuine miracle? But as is usually the case with miraculous claims, it becomes less credible as one examines it more closely.

One fact is that the corpses are not as naturally free from corruption as advertised. Some of them have been embalmed, others have had masks put on them, and yet others have had certain features touched up. But even the cases of merely reduced corruption can be due to reasons that have nothing to do with miracles. Although the examples given are for prominent Catholics, bodies other than Catholic saints have been found in similar states of reduced decomposition.

This is not to say that it is fully understood why some bodies seem to decay at a slower rate than others. It is known that the rate of decay can vary widely depending on conditions. Mary Roach’s humorously macabre book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers describes, among other things, how forensic crime investigators research this important question that gives them valuable information to help them establish the time of death of murder victims. They do this by strewing bodies all over the place under all kinds of conditions and seeing how they decompose. The rate of decay can vary widely depending on a whole host of reasons.

As one observer writes, “For reasons still poorly understood, corpses don’t invariably decompose into potting soil as many assume. Instead, the fat tissue, usually in the presence of moisture, sometimes turns into a solid, soaplike substance that makes the cadaver look like something you’d find in a wax museum.” The soaplike substance referred to is called adipocere and this article explains the conditions under which it forms and why it makes bodies highly resistant, but not totally immune, to decomposition.

Another fact to be considered is that reduced decomposition may not be as rare as people think. Most of the time we have no reason to exhume bodies unless for something like a criminal investigation. But the Catholic Church did have a reason. Since it was the Catholic Church that used incorruptibility as one of the criteria for sainthood, that meant that they were responsible for many of the exhumations. Since the reputation for great holiness tends to grow with time and after the death of the person, getting at the bodies of potential saints and removing parts for relics required exhumation. Thus the fact that the bodies of pious Catholic are over-represented in the records of “incorruptible” bodies may be due to simple sampling errors. If we randomly exhumed bodies and examined them, we may find that somewhat preserved bodies are fairly common and uncorrelated with religion and thus not really ‘miracles’ in the conventional use of the word.

All these facts have led even the Catholic Church to no longer consider the incorruptibility of a body as credible evidence of saintliness. As Duffin writes in her study of the church’s policies on sainthood, “Eventually, the finding of miraculous preservation was deemed to be indistinguishable from mummification induced by environmental circumstances of humidity and temperature. Because the finding [of incorruptibility] could apply to the remains of people who had not lived exemplary lives, it constituted insufficient evidence for saintliness.” (p. 102)

But Duffin has some interesting things to say about miracles that I will examine in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Door-to-door evangelists

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

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