In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions, incorruptibility is the belief that if the corpse of a saint does not decompose it is a sign that God has intervened because of that person’s holiness. Incorruptibility is a temporary state of preservation and is usually found when an saint’s tomb is opened during the canonization process. It refers to the lifelike condition of the remains and lack of putrefaction. But once the “miraculously” preserved remains are removed from their sarcophagus or tomb the body will usually start to decay or mummify (Harper 2014).
It takes two miracles for canonization, the process by which someone is declared a saint, and the Roman Catholic Church used to allow incorruptibility to count as a miracle for canonization but stopped because of the widespread availability of preservation techniques (Harper 2014).
Often churches will display the bodies of these saints in a glass case next to the altar. The bodies of Saint Catherine of Bologna, Saint Catherine Laboure, and Saint Betina Zita were judged to be incorrupt when they were first exhumed and can be seen today, hundreds of years after they died.
Saint Betina Zita (c. 1212 – 27 April 1272) is the patron saint of maids and domestic servants, and people will often appeal to her to help find lost keys. She died peacefully at 60-years-old on April 27, 1272, and was canonized in 1696. Soon after she died a cult grew up around her and became popular in the late medieval era. When Saint Zita’s body was exhumed in 1580, it was discovered to be incorrupt, but has since mummified. St. Zita’s body is currently on display for public veneration in the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca, Italy.
Saint Catherine of Bologna (8 September 1413 – 9 March 1463) was an Italian cloistered nun, artist and saint. She was canonized in 1712 and is the patron saint of artists and against temptations. When she died on March 9, 1463, at the age of 49, she was buried in Bologna, Italy. Saint Catherine of Bologna was exhumed eighteen days later because of miracles that occurred next to her grave. When her body was found to be incorrupt, her corpse was relocated to the chapel of the Poor Clares in Bologna, next to the Church of Corpus Domini, also known as the Chiesa della Santa, where she is displayed seated her religious habit behind glass. Saint Catherine’s body has mummified and the skin has blackened over the years as well. See a close-up image here on Atlas Obscura.
Saint Catherine Labouré (2 May 1806 – 31 December 1876) was born in 1806 to large family in the Burgundy region of France. She joined the nursing order founded by Saint Vincent de Paul. Saint Catherine Labouré is best known for her visions of the Blessed Mother and for creating the Miraculous Medal. In 1895 her cause for beatification was introduced in Rome. When her body was exhumed in 1933 the church judged it to be incorrupt, and encased it in a glass coffin at the side altar of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, one of the locations where the Virgin Mary appeared to her. Saint Catherine Labouré was canonized on July 27, 1947 by Pope Pius XII.
Harper, E. (2014). THE (NOT REALLY SO VERY) INCORRUPT CORPSES. Retrieved on June 5, 2014 from: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/really-whats-incorrupt-corpses#.U5DltRZUXcL
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