Two items appear below:
1 Incorruptibility Harry Edwards
2 Letter Glen Berg
Miracle or Myth?
(Investigator 45, 1995 November)
Incorrupt: Unaffected by decay.
To the religious, the bodily incorruption of certain saints and the beatified is a reality. Their apparent ability after death to defy the ravages of nature is, in many cases, well documented, and quoted by believers as miraculous. Whether or not there are mundane reasons for the unusual or prolonged preservation of a human organism without artificial aids is the subject of this article.
Saints and the beatified proliferate within the Catholic church and are defined by The Council of Trent as:"The bodies of holy martyrs and others now living with Christ, bodies which were His members and temples of the Holy Spirit, which one day are to be raised up by Him and made glorious in everlasting life, are to be venerated by the faithful; God gives men many benefits through them."Prior to this, the term "saint" referred to those members of the early church who had rejected sin to live in a state of sanctity, and later, to those who had died as Christians and who were in heaven and able to intercede with God on behalf of the living. Under Gregory IX (pope 1227-1241) papal approval became the only legitimate means of conferring sainthood. The conditions were diverse – a heroic service of virtue or piety, the foundation of a holy order, martyrdom or a life of exemplary conduct and humility.
The most comprehensive work of all those venerated as saints by the church throughout history runs into twelve volumes, many being far removed from the sanctity one would associate with them. That some are considered to have found favour in the eyes of the Lord and are chosen as God's intermediaries to administer to the living is beyond the ken of the sceptical.
Long associated with saints are the legendary tales of supernatural powers attributed to their anatomical parts and material possessions, giving rise to a universal trade in religious artifacts, most, if not all of which in the eyes of the objective examiner, have been seen to be spurious.
Incorruptibility is not confined to the saints; claims have been made on behalf of other mortals, one of which will be subject to closer scrutiny later in this article, but first let's take a look at a few of the historical, traditional and conventional methods of preserving the carcass (holy or otherwise) of one who has departed this world, and the part mother nature has to play.
The art of preserving dead bodies from decay dates back to ancient Egypt, and stems from the discovery that prehistoric corpses buried in shallow graves uncovered by grave robbers showed no signs of decay. The hair, skin and soft parts were entirely preserved, a natural phenomenon due to the hot desert sand being in direct contact with the skin. This discovery probably led to, or confirmed the Egyptians' belief in a life after death and led to the practice of mummification.
Unfortunately, the first attempts at preservation were not successful, the corpses being entombed in rooms filled with air which assisted decomposition. The art developed over the centuries using various embalming techniques – macerating the body in a salt bath, linen wrappings saturated with resin, and injections of molten resin. The Greeks and Romans too practised embalming although their methods appear to have been inefficient.
Many aromatic substances are reputed to resist putrefaction, and other recommendations down through the years include balsams, tartar, immersion in herbs, spirits of wine, waxed sheets, brine or alcohol, oils of lavender, camomile and turpentine. Modern embalming consists of the injection of several litres of a fluid containing formaldehyde. (A high profile and bewhiskered member of the NSW committee is reputed to use a facial preparation containing formaldehyde, but not with much success!)
So much for the artificial methods of preservation, but what of the reports of alleged incorruption where it is averred that the body had not been treated in any way? We have already seen that prehistoric bodies found in Egypt have been naturally preserved for millennia in situations where air and decay organisms did not come in contact with the body, and elsewhere, burial in sandy soil in hot climates in Central and South America has produced natural mummification.
Well preserved bodies have also been recovered from the bogs and peat marshes of Ireland, Scotland and Denmark – again in situations where the bodies were insulated from the air and decay organisms. Likewise, well-preserved prehistoric mammoths have been found in the permanently frozen ground in Siberia, one of the most complete and intensively studied carcasses being unearthed in 1899 from the bed of the Berezovka river in the same area. In recent times, there was great excitement and interest when the frozen and well preserved body of a 5000 year old male was discovered in the Austrian Alps.
It would seem then, that the exclusion of air is a significant factor when it comes to preserving a body; if a coffin or sarcophagus is hermetically sealed or in some way protected from bacterial surroundings, decay will not set in or at least will be retarded.
The opportunity to scientifically examine an alleged case of incorruptibility is rare. Believers accept the "miracle" as a matter of faith, natural factors conducive to preservation are ignored and sceptics are not encouraged to proffer more prosaic explanations. Take for example the referral to the incorruptible Saint Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879) of Lourdes fame, in The Sublime Shepherdess, The Life of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes."…The body was first exhumed thiry years after her death. On September 22, 1909, in the presence of representatives appointed by the postulators of the cause, two doctors, and sisters of the community, the coffin was removed by workmen from the place where it had been entombed thirty years before. On opening the lid, they discovered no odour and the virginal body lay exposed, completely victorious over the laws of nature.Assuming the account of the proceedings to be accurate, I pondered on the words "entombed" and "tomb", which suggest that neither the first nor the second internment was a ground burial. The coffin would therefore, be less prone to rot allowing the ingress of air, bacteria and carnivorous creepy-crawlies.
Although the clothing was damp, and sawdust and charcoal surrounded the body, the arms and face were completely unaffected and had maintained their natural skin tone. The teeth were barely visible through the slightly parted lips and the eyes appeared somewhat sunken. Her perfect hands held a rosary which had become rusty, and the crucifix which lay upon her breast was coated with verdigris.
While time sisters were removing the damp robes, they discovered while the body was entire and without the least trace of corruption, it was nevertheless emaciated... The sisters with the best of intentions, thoroughly washed the body and reclothed it in a new religious habit before placing it in a new casket. After the official documents pertaining to the exhumation were placed beside the body, and the double casket officially sealed, the remains were again consigned to the tomb.
The second exhumation took place on April 3, 1919. [The date of the exhumation of Bernadette's incorrupt body is cited in Man Myth & Magic (Ed. Cavendish, R.) 1971, No. 59, p 1653. as being 1925, the year of her beatification. If they can't get the date right what of other details?]
The body of the Venerable was found in the same state of preservation as ten years earlier, except that the face was slightly discoloured due to the washing it had undergone during the first exhumation. A worker in wax who had frequently applied such a coating to the faces of the newly dead was entrusted with the task of coating the face of the Saint who had been dead forty years.
The sacred relic was placed in a coffin of gold and glass and can been viewed in the Chapel a/Saint Bernadette at the motherhouse in Nevers."
"The clothes were damp and the body surrounded by sawdust and charcoal", both the sawdust and the charcoal would have acted as absorbents and insulators thus providing an almost perfect environment for preserving the body."...the double casket officially sealed', the remains were again consigned to the tomb."
Not having access to the details of the caskets there is no way of determining how airtight it was, but it was a "double casket" and one can rest assured, given the veneration of the remains, it would not have been made of three-ply or chipboard.
After the second exhumation, the face of the saint was given a coat of wax which will prevent deterioration almost indefinitely, and the body sealed in an air-tight glass coffin.
Even with the scant details available, I would suggest that the atmospheric conditions surrounding Bernadette's internment would offer a more plausible explanation for her incorruptibility than one of supernatural intervention. There is also the possibility that some preservation techniques were originally involved but were either unobserved or unreported. A piece of paper left to burn on the charcoal while the casket lid was being sealed, would consume the oxygen thus creating a vacuum and retarding the prospects of decay.
Incorruptibility is by no means confined to saints. In an article which appeared in the Rational Enquirer, The Skeptics' Newsletter for Western Canada, Leonard Angel, a professor of philosophy at the University of Columbia, recounts how he investigated the miracle which is reported in almost every Yogananda publication put out by the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF), the society founded and organised by Yogananda to propagate his teachings:
"After Death the Body of Paramahansa Yogananda Manifested a Phenomenal State of Immutability." The story in Self-Realization Magazine (Los Angeles) May 1952 issue; and in the national news weekly Time, August 4, 1952 reported that:"The great world teacher demonstrated the value of yoga (scientific techniques for God-realization) not only in life but in death. Weeks after his departure his unchanged face shone with the divine light luster of incorruptibility. "Mr. Harry Rowe, Los Angeles Mortuary Director, Forest Lawn Memorial-Park (in which the great master is temporarily placed) sent Self-Realization Fellowship a notarized letter from which the following extracts are taken:Professor Angel was impressed, but not convinced. He obtained a copy of Yogananda's death certificate from the Los Angeles Department of Vital Statistics which confirmed that Yogananda had died on March 7th, the certificate of death being received by the registrar on March 11 1952. However, the certificate also bore the signature "Kenneth I. Johnson", and the number 2641. It was contained in box #21, above which were the words "Signature of embalmer."
The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramahansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience... No physical disintegration was visible even twenty days after death... No indication of mould was visible on his skin, and no visible desiccation (drying up) took place in the bodily tissues. This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one... At the time of receiving Yogananda‘s body, the mortuary personnel expected to observe, through the glass lid of the casket, the usual progressive signs of bodily decay. Our astonishment increased day after day without bringing any visible change in the body under observation. Yogananda's body was apparently in a phenomenal state of immutability... No odour of decay emanated from his body at any time... The physical appearance of Yogananda on March 27th, just before the bronze cover of the casket was put into position, was the same as it had been on March 7th."
Confirmation that Yogananda had in fact been embalmed was found in the full text of Harry Rowe's letter in a little booklet entitled Paramahansa Yogananda, In Memoriam, put out by the Self-Realization Fellowship. It reads,"Paramahansa Yogananda's body was embalmed an the night of March 8th, with that quantity of fluid which is customarily used in any body of similar size."So what was the miracle?
According to the full text of Harry Rowe's letter the astonishment was only due to the fact that the funeral home staff had not used any creams in addition to the embalming fluid – a creamy pore-sealing emulsion that temporarily prevents the outward appearance of mould.
A check with two independent licensed embalmers elicited the following comments,"I'm sure we've had bodies for two or three months with good preservation. This is not unusual. Creams are not necessary",and"...that preservation for 20 days through embalming is not unusual. We can keep a body a month or two without interral…an embalming fluid with a lanolin base will have humecant which prevents dehydration, which is the major concern...a heavy glass lid as is described by Mr Rowe as being present on the casket, would prevent a great amount of air circulation, and that in itself would prevent most desiccation, so that would account for it."
Far from being "a demonstration of yogic powers", "a phenomenal state of immutability" or "a miracle through the grace of the Heavenly Father", it seems that any perception that a miracle had occurred was simply the result of misleading selections taken from a misleading letter.
Finally, let's speculate and assume that as so many apparently believe, immutability is the work of divine intervention to serve some unspecified purpose. What are the big O's (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient) selective criteria? Piety? Sanctity? An exemplary life? Service to the church? The performance of miraculous deeds? Self-mortification?
Obviously some would not qualify such as St Damasus I (366-384), an adulterer whose pontificate is noted for its wanton brutality and murder, and Gregory I (St. Gregory the Great, 590-604), who put the church's treasures before his followers when Rome was gripped by famine, approved of slavery, frequented the slave markets in Rome, showed an unusual interest in young, blond, fair-skinned, smooth-bodied boys from northern Europe, had the Palatine Library burnt and promoted belief in miracles and superstition.
What of the most revered and beloved of all the saints, Mary the Blessed Virgin? Surely unique in history as the first woman to be impregnated by an extraterrestrial and the only one believed by millions to have been beamed up from Earth. Why didn't she remain on Earth and qualify for incorruptibility?
St Joan of Arc (1412-1431), young, innocent, and a pillar of the church, albeit badly in need of psychiatric help, I would have thought been a suitable candidate for incorruptibility. However, the circumstances surrounding her demise was even too much for the big O.
So what are we to conclude about incorruptibility? In my opinion there seems to be no criteria, rhyme nor reason why a handful of the thousands of saints do not appear to succumb to the same ravages of death to which all organisms are subject. Like so many other "miracles" incorruptibility is accepted by the faithful with little or no investigation to ascertain whether or not an explanation exists more plausible than that of divine intervention.
Angel, Leonard. 1991. Paramahansa Yogananda's "Scientifically Attested" Miracle. Rational Enquirer. Vol.4, No. 3, April 1991. Box 48844, Bentall Centre, Vancouver, BC. Canada.
Cavendish [Ed] 1971. Man, Myth and Magic. Vol. 59. p 1653.
Cruz, Joan Carroll. (19?) The Incorruptibles. Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. Rockford, Illinois. 61105.
Ide, Arthur Frederick. 1987. Unzipped – the popes bare all. American Atheist Press Inc. Austin Texas.
Edwards, Harry. 1994. Skeptoon. An lllustrated Look at Some New Age Beliefs. (Artifacts) p 3-5. Harry Edwards Publications, 3 Nullaburra Road, Newport, NSW 2106.
Jones, Alison. 1994. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Saints. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. CribStreet, Ware, Hertfordshire, SGI2 9EF
(Investigator 110, 2006 September)
I read with interest the article on "Incorruptibility". (Investigator 45)
The fact that Bernadette's body was perfectly preserved is not necessarily miraculous. It is well known that corpses decompose to varying degrees in certain kinds of soil and may gradually mummify.
However, in the case of Bernadette this mummification is quite astounding. Her illnesses and the state of her body at the time of death, and the humidity in the vault in the chapel of Saint Joseph (the habit was damp, the rosary rusty and the crucifix had turned green), would all seem to be conducive to the decay of the flesh.
Explain also the fact that other bodies buried in the same location under the same conditions have seen corruption when they have been sealed, but not Bernadette's remains?
Harry Edwards refutes the paranormal on this website: