Did You Know

6 Human Bodies That Refuse to Rot

People are canonized by the Catholic Church for all sorts of reasons, but they all have at least one thing in common: miracles. For these six venerated saints, at least one of their miracles includes the fact that, even when exhumed years after their deaths, their bodies looked the same as the day they died.


Known as “incorrupt bodies,” they lie (some of them still whole) at churches and holy sites around the world that you can totally visit…if you’re not weirded out by mummies or dismembered corpses, of course.


#6. Saint Maria Adelaide

Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

We’re gonna start with Maria Adelaide because she’s not actually a Catholic saint. Though Maria Adelaide’s canonization was denied by the Church, that hasn’t stopped the local population of Portugal from preserving and venerating her body, as they flock in droves to visit her not-decayed corpse.

Maria was born in Porto, Portugal in 1835 and was a sickly child, forced to leave her convent and travel to the coast in order to relieve her tuberculosis. Even her brutal illness never stopped her from working tirelessly to feed and clothe those less fortunate than she, especially children, and she is remembered as a “saint of the people.”

She died in 1885 in Arcozelo, where she was buried and left undisturbed for 30 years. In 1916, a developer who bought the land and dug up her grave was astonished to find her corpse intact – including her clothing – and “exhaling a strong scent of roses.”

The local populace stepped in and had her body removed to a chapel, completed in 1921, that was built just for her. She lays there still, now with her own museum to house the thousands of gifts from the people who come to see her every year.


#5. Saint Stephen (“The Holy Right”)

Image Credit: The Apricity

We may not have access to Saint Stephen’s entire body (it seems that only his right arm was incorrupt), but his right fist takes part in a yearly parade on his feast day in Hungary. It’s known as the “holy right,” unless you’re an incorrigible local youth, in which case you might refer to the relic as the “monkey paw.”

For founding the Christian Hungarian state, Saint Stephen was canonized in 1083, and, when his body was exhumed, the Church found his right arm to be completely intact. They promptly removed it (as you do) to be venerated. It went on a bit of a journey due to the Tartar invasion – to Croatia, where it was cut in two so it could be shared with a church in Vienna – before returning to Hungary in 1771. During WWII, it was removed once again, this time to Austria for safekeeping.

It’s now back home at the Basilica of Saint Stephen in Budapest, where you can see it…briefly. A light will shine on the relic if you deposit a coin, but only for about 30 seconds at a time.

Which, honestly, is probably more than enough time to stare at a mummified fist.


#4. Saint Cecilia (Cecily)

Image Credit: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/photographing-the-real-bodies-of-incorrupt-saints/>Atlas Obscura

Like all of our final four ladies, Saint Cecilia was a virgin who saw visions of the Virgin Mary during her life – and she was found to possess an incorrupt body long after her death.

Cecilia, a Christian living in Roman antiquity, was forced to marry a man named Valerian. Somehow, she not only convinced him not to violate her virginity (this should be considered one of her miracles, if it isn’t), but she also converted him to Christianity.

Valerian, his brother, and Cecilia were all beheaded after refusing to denounce their faith (year unknown, though some place it around 177 C.E.), but after the three allowable whacks to the neck, Cecilia’s head refused to roll. It’s said that the executioner fled in fear, leaving her to linger for three days. She finally passed with three fingers extended in what is assumed to be a nod to the trinity.

As with most tales about the lives and deaths of ancient saints, little or none of this story can be historically corroborated. That doesn’t stop the Church from keeping a marble effigy (carved to mimic how she appeared when she was exhumed in 1599) around her perfectly preserved corpse, along with other relics from her body, at Santa Cecilia (Trastavere, Rome).


#3. Saint Catherine of Bologna

Image Credit: Idle Speculations

The first of our Saint Catherines (seriously, I don’t understand how this name is so popular after reading these stories) was said to have been visited by both Jesus and Satan alike, making her the patron saint of temptation in the Catholic tradition. Artists also claim her patronage, as she was a gifted painter and musician (her violin remains with her body in Italy).

According to the pamphlet about her life and death handed out at Chiesa della Santa, where her corpse has sat on a golden throne (literally sat, like a living person) for over 500 years, when her body was exhumed fourteen years after burial, it was “intact, flexible, and sweet-smelling.”

You can visit this site, equal parts impressive and macabre, in Bologna, Italy.

#2. Saint Catherine of Siena

It might seem odd to some people, walking into a beautiful cathedral and coming face-to-face with a mummified, severed head. But, to the people of Siena, the head is a hard-won relic – it even performed its own miracle to find its way home.

Catherine of Siena began her relationship with the Church as a young child. She saw her first vision of the Virgin Mary at the age of 7 and made a virginity vow as a teenager – one she took seriously enough to cut off her hair, scald herself, and run away to a nunnery, all to avoid marriage. Shortly after arriving, she had a vision of Jesus placing a ring on her finger (made of his holy foreskin, no less), and at the age of 28, she received the stigmata.

She died young, at 33, and her body was removed to Rome. The people of her home town believed her remains belonged with them, however, so they went on a mission to smuggle her back. Realizing that it would be impossible to sneak her whole body out of Rome, they chose instead to lop off her head and transport it to Siena in a paper bag.

Yes, really.

They were caught, but, in a final miracle, the guards saw only rose petals when they peered inside the bag. Her head has resided at the Church of San Dominico in Siena ever since, though the rest of her body (save one foot in a Venice reliquary) can still be seen in Rome.

#1. Saint Bernadette of Lourdes

Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

In a story that resembles that of a young Joan of Arc, at least at its inception, Bernadette began to see visions of the Virgin Mary at the age of 14. The spirit gave her encouragement and advice, along with the location of a spring now believed to have healing powers. Dutifully, she reported the sightings. Given that she was young, innocent, and quite pretty by anyone’s standards, her stories were accepted rather than ignored.

The apparition requested a shrine be built at the spring’s grotto, a spot that remains an extremely popular pilgrimage site to this day, and miraculous healings have been reported from Bernadette’s time to the present.

Sadly, it couldn’t help Bernadette herself, who perished from tuberculosis in 1879. As part of her canonization process, her body was exhumed three separate times – in 1909, 1919, and lastly in 1925 – at which point it was officially declared “incorrupt.” The definition of incorrupt was not particularly strict though; a doctor at the 1919 exhumation said about the body:

“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.”

A few ribs were sent to Rome as relics, and her face, which was a tad blackened and, it was decided, unseemly, was given a mannequin-esque mask made of wax. But the rest of her original (quite lovely) dead body remains on display.



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