Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Mystery of the Incorruptibles

A friend 'phoned me a few days ago. In the course of our conversation, she happened to mention a visit she had made to France and, in particular, her visit to the Catholic shrine at Lourdes. She went on to explain to me how the body of Bernadette, saint of Lourdes, lies in state at Nevers, France. But, this is the intriguing bit: Bernadette's body, according to the Catholic Church, is lying free from deterioration, incorruptible.

I confess I had never heard before of this phenomenon. But I was determined to find out the truth.

There is surprisingly little information available on the internet regarding the story. Or rather, there are plenty of accounts of Bernadette's life and death but very few attempts at actually explaining the events that took place. I am amazed at the way people accept the story as truth without question.

What I have written here is the fruit of my searching. It is by no means comprehensive. Obviously, having never actually seen the body of Bernadette, I am not in the best position to comment on the truth of what we are told.


Who are the 'Incorruptibles'?

First, by way of introduction, let me explain what is meant by the term 'Incorruptibles'. According to the Roman Catholic Church, the 'Incorruptibles' are the bodies of so-called saints which have been miraculously preserved. These bodies, so the church claims, have supernaturally survived decomposition and remain incorrupt and intact. Bernadette is among the list of Catholic 'saints' who are said to be 'Incorruptible'.

Bernadette's Story

Living in Holywell, 'the Lourdes of Wales', I'd heard of the village but had no idea of its story. Lourdes is famous for the life of Bernadette Soubrirous, who supposedly saw visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Bernadette died of a long-term illness on April 16th, 1879, aged 35. She was buried in St. Joseph chapel in Nevers, France.

30 years after her death on September 22, 1909, her body was exhumed. According to a witness, speaking under oath, here's what happened:

"The coffin was opened in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the mayor of the town, his principal deputy, several canons and ourselves. We noticed no smell. The body was clothed in the habit of Bernadette's order. The habit was damp. Only the face, hands and forearms were uncovered."

"The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white. The skin clung to the muscles and the muscles adhered to the bones. The eye sockets were covered by the eyelids. The brows were flat on the skin and stuck to the arches above the eyes. The lashes of the right eyelid were stuck to the skin. The nose was dilated and shrunken. The mouth was open slightly and it could be seen that the teeth were still in place. The hands, which were crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting rosary. The veins on the forearms stood out."

"Like the hands, the feet were wizened and the toenails were still intact (one of them was torn off when the corpse was washed). When the habits had been removed and the veil lifted from the head, the whole of the shrivelled body could be seen, rigid and taut in every limb. It was found that the hair, which had been cut short, was stuck to the head and still attached to the skull, that the ears were in a state of perfect preservation, that the left side of the body was slightly higher than the right from the hip up. The stomach had caved in and was taut like the rest of the body. It sounded like cardboard when struck. The left knee was not as large as the right. The ribs protruded as did the muscles in the limbs."

"So rigid was the body that it could be rolled over and back for washing. The lower parts of the body had turned slightly black. This seems to have been the result of the carbon of which quite large quantities were found in the coffin."

"In witness of which we have duly drawn up this present statement in which all is truthfully recorded."

Two further exhumations took place in 1919 and 1925 and the reports made were similar to the first. The body was noted to have deteriorated a little more but that was put down to the fact that it had been washed during the first exhumation.

The Evidence

Incorruptible? The above record has been reproduced many times as evidence that Bernadette's body is lying miraculously preserved from corruption. But, personally, I find it less than convincing. Listen to what we are told: "the nose was dilated and shrunken...the feet were wizened...the stomach had caved in and was taut like the rest of the body...the ribs protruded as did the muscles in the limbs". Does that sound like a perfect body to you?

True, the body was well preserved. However, given the right conditions, is is not impossible for a body to decay slowly and remain largely intact after many years. If the soil around the corpse is dry and exposure to the air is minimal, deterioration may take a long time to run its course.

Moreover, many people believe that the body of Bernadette was tampered with in order to give an appearance of incorruption. The nuns who witnessed the first exhumation observed that the body was in a different position from when it had been buried.1 Some people suspect that the body was embalmed or given special treatment to help preserve it. It is no secret that, in 1925, wax masks were laid over Bernadette's face and hands. However, the extent to which the body has been waxed is a matter of debate. There are people who believe that the whole thing is just one big hoax.

What the Church Says

According to the Roman Catholic Church, incorruption is a sign of sainthood. Yet, not all saints have been declared 'incorrruptible'. Nor are well-preserved bodies unique to the Catholic Church. Followers of both Buddhism and Hinduism have made similar claims regarding certain of their leaders who have died. Ironically, one of the best known cases of a well-preserved body is that of the Russian leader, Vladimir Lenin. I don't believe anyone has proposed that he is conferred with sainthood though.

From what I have read, the Catholic Church is careful to preserve this 'miracle' of theirs. Scientists are not permitted to examine Bernadette's body. I read one article written by someone who had actually visited the body in Nevers. When he returned home, he contacted the president of an embalming chemicals company and related his experience. The president was sceptical and promised to find the answers. This is what happened:

"He [the president] called a leading official in the Roman Catholic Church in the city where he lived and had a lengthy conversation with the bishop. He then called me and very meekly told me that the church took this subject of incorruptibility very seriously and that he was going to leave the subject alone-he did not want to tangle with the church."2

Personally, I find this quite astounding.

What the Bible Says

From a purely Scriptural point of view, there is no reason why saints' bodies should escape decay and corruption. To start with, the Bible teaches that all Christians are saints. It does not teach that God has appointed an elite few who will be conferred with a special status and who will somehow acquire particular favour and blessing.

Secondly, the Bible clearly teaches that our bodies will corrupt and decay because that is part of the fallen nature of this world. Job 21:26: "They shall lie down alike in the dust, and the worms shall cover them."


To conclude, I see no evidence that would compel me to believe that the body of Bernadette Soubrirous is lying intact and incorruptible. Although people may claim it is so, nobody can deny the fact that the body has deteriorated to a certain extent. In my mind, being 'well-preserved' hardly constitutes a miracle. Surely if this was an act of God, it would be perfect?

"Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Corinthians 15:50-57




Bethany said...

That was very interesting. I had never heard of Bernadette's story before. I am hoping to email you my interwiew answers tomorrow. Sorry it has taken me so long but I want Mum to double check my answers for grammatical errors etc.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion!

Suzanne said...

Glad you both found it interesting. I think it's all totally fascinating.

Bethany, don't worry about how long it takes you - there's no hurry :) I'm looking forward to seeing what you say!

Anonymous said...

a well written common sense article, that shows both understanding and well thought out reports. i too, do not believe in an elite few, we who know the Lord are His Saints, but our bodies shall return to the earth. If there are 'incorruptibles', then they are there because of fortunate burial conditions. there are various sparse reports of 'non-saints' being 'incorruptible' they too seem to enjoy the lack of decay to their mortal coil.
thank you for placing the Lord in this, only He shows the truth. Teresa

Suzanne said...

Thank you for your appreciation, Teresa, and taking time to comment.


Anonymous said...

I'm Catholic and I believe in the incorruptibles. Most bodies decompose very quickly, these corpses have not. Most bodies develop horrible smells, these have not...some even smell like flowers. Sure...some of them are not perfect but they are exponentially better preserved than other corpses! One corpse (I cannot remember which) was found with lime in the casket which actually SPEEDS up decomposition. How can you explain that? Of course there are a few instances where bodies have been purposely or accidently preserved, but they are not nearly as well preserved as the incorruptibles. In addition, they all led extremely holy lives; each and every one of them was fully committed to God. It is a mystery of faith. You said that it was truly an act of God they would have been preserved perfectly, but is it not miraculous that over hundreds of years that these bodies are in NEARLY perfect state? You can believe it our not, but these people led holy lives and-I believe-have been preserved through an act of God. If you rely on proof to answer all the questions of your faith, then it isn't really faith at all. I know that God could do this and I believe He did. I feel that He left us these examples to model ourselves after. He knows that these miracles will give more faith to His followers.

Suzanne said...

Hi, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your input.

I’ll be honest and admit that I know very little of the scientific details relating to the deterioration and preservation of bodies.

BUT, there are a few things which persuade me that my conclusion is correct.

Firstly, as I said in my article, I don’t believe that God deals in imperfect miracles. Jesus’ works of healing were always perfect and complete; He is not hampered by the course and laws of nature.

Secondly, I believe that we must measure this up against the Word of God, as the sole authority in matters of faith. You are absolutely right: we can’t rely on scientific ‘proof’ or visible evidence to support our faith. “ the evidence of things not seen” Heb 11:1. There are many aspects of our religion which we do not understand and probably never will understand in this life. However, our faith is not blind, neither is it gullible. Biblical faith can only be exercised once the evidence has been evaluated and measured up against the Word of God. The Preservation of Saints’ Bodies is not a doctrine taught in Scripture. In fact, the Bible teaches that our bodies will decay because we all, down to the most holy saint, are living in imperfect bodies which have come under the curse of sin. I do not believe that God would override what is clearly taught in Scripture and make exceptions in the case of especially ‘holy’ saints. If we are to have 'faith’ in every new supposed miracle or doctrine, where do we draw the line?

Finally, I don’t understand why God would choose to preserve a fallen, corrupt body. God’s saints are now in glory and can hardly be benefited by having their earthly bodies preserved. You’re right, we can make Christian saints our models. But, ultimately, it is what happens to their souls that is important, not their bodies. The question we need to ask ourselves is not, “Will I achieve the same level of holiness as the saints whose bodies lie incorrupt?” Rather it is, “Will my soul go, with the souls of God’s saints, to heaven saved by the precious blood of Jesus Christ?


Anonymous said...

Its such a good thing that you are defending the true church of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church have lied to its members for ages, preaching satanic doctrines. We need more people like you spreading these powerful messages to those who are lost. Who are wasting their time living in sinful practices such as praying the rosary, praying to the dead/saints, praying to mary, calling the priest 'Father', amongst many other things against scripture. But the world will be led astray by satan before God returns to save his devoted followers. Amen