Most of us can agree that the concept of eternal life/dwelling forever in some species of paradise sounds appealing. However, not many people think of the physical body, itself, as everlasting - which is why the image of the "incorruptible" saint is so enduringly fascinating. For centuries, the Catholic church (and some Buddhist temples, as well) have housed the remains of icons who are supposedly immune to decomposition and decay as we know it. The preservation and display of these bodies represent a holy tradition, even though incorruptibility is no longer considered a miracle by the Vatican.
"Incorruptibility," itself, is an increasingly fluid term that can encapsulate any number of definitions. A corpse that's initially uncannily preserved can start to decay with time, as bodies are wont to; or only certain parts of the mortal remains (like a heart or an isolated hand or limb, for example) may be left intact. In any and all cases, a saint, once canonized, is always a saint, whether their mummified remains are reposing amid splendid settings or they're little more than a bejeweled skeleton. Read on to find out more.
Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov takes center stage as perhaps the most grotesque and interesting saint on this list. An esteemed Russian Buddhist monk, he's said to have passed mid-chant in 1927. He requested to be buried in whatever pose he was in when he moved on, so he was interred sitting upright, in the lotus position.
In 1955, and again in 1973, Itigilov was exhumed and found to be uncorrupt. He was unearthed a third (and, it's said, final time) in 2002, and his body was "in the condition of someone who had [passed] 36 hours ago." The appearance of the monk's remains don't exactly jive with this assessment, but there is no doubt that he looks mighty good (if "good" is the way you want to put it) for someone who shuffled off this mortal coil 90 years ago.
Itigilov's remains reside in Ivolginsky Datsan, a Buddhist temple in Russia. They are said to sit outdoors, under a tree, and one can easily envision observers, taking a casual stroll along an idyllic garden path, doing a startled double-take as they come upon him. However, there is some intrigue surrounding the location of his remains and reports that the monk's body may have been taken.
Rosalia Lombardo, one of the world's most enchanting (and poignant) corpses, is not officially recognized as a saint by the Church, but many devout believers consider her to be one. Even almost 100 years after her passing, her impeccably preserved mortal form evokes pathos, sympathy, and a sense of awe at her beauty.
Born in Palermo, Italy, in 1918, Rosalia passed of pneumonia at age 2, and her devastated father, unable to accept her demise, commissioned "master" embalmer and taxidermist Alfredo Salafia to preserve her. According to reports, a combination of "formalin, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin" has kept her basically intact. With her wavy hair, perfect features, and porcelain skin, she still appears (more or less) as she did in life. (There's also reports that her eyes have occasionally opened, though that proposition seems dubious.)
MRI scans of Rosalia's form eerily resemble footage of alien autopsies, but, astonishingly, most of her organs are still intact. She rests in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in Sicily, and her beauty and peaceful expression have led to her being popularly dubbed “Sleeping Beauty."
St. Victoria of Rome is one of the church's most unnerving and sinister relics. In life, she was persecuted for her Catholic faith - a tragedy that's reflected by the red slash in her throat. Her uncorrupted body was installed in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
However, Victoria's golden curls, alabaster brow, and perfect features aren't what they seem to be. The BBC TV series Rome - A History of the Eternal City discussed Victoria in the "Divine Gamble" episode: "When first you look at this, you think it must be a waxwork. But when you look a little closer, into the slightly open mouth you see, through the open lips of a skeleton."
On the surface, she appears to be preserved in wax. Victoria is an initially radiant figure who gradually deepens into a decaying ghoul, the longer you look at her.
St Bernadette of Lourdes, France, passed in 1879, after supposedly witnessing 18 manifestations of the Virgin Mary. However, her path to sainthood was a long one: she wasn't canonized until 1933, and said process apparently required multiple episodes of disinternment. Her body was exhumed on three occasions: in 1909, in 1919, and finally in 1925. The church declared her as officially "incorrupt."
The doctor present at the 1910 exhumation phrased it thus:
The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. […] the skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body. Some of the veins are still visible.
Ultimately, several of Bernadette's ribs were removed and shipped off to Rome as relics. The rest of her now reposes in the Chapel of Saint Gidard at the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, France. However, officials still feared that the "blackish color" of the saint's face might alarm audiences, so a "light wax mask" was installed; its porcelain composure now hides the patchy mildew beneath.