Incorruptibility is the notion that someone who is holy enough will not have their body rot away after death. An incorruptible corpse ranks somewhere above a mummy and below a vampire. It can’t get up, walk around, or suck blood and Yoo-hoo. But nor is it stiff, nor does it require care to maintain an appearance of being asleep. Incorruptibility is primarily associated with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, though it has made cameos in Hinduism and Buddhism.
For a body to resist decomposition, it needs plenty of help. This assistance can take the form of nature and serendipity, which happened to Ötzi, whose corpse spent 5,000 years frozen in an Alps glacier. Or the deceased can be tended to by believers who feel that their all-knowing, all-powerful deity needs some help. In these cases, believers may cover the body in wax and seal it in metal or glass, or use other preservation methods. All bodies eventually disintegrate unless pumped with embalming fluids or waxes, or helped by conditions such as alkaline soil, or a lack of oxygen, bacteria, worms, heat, and light.
Some of the allegedly incorruptible corpses release a sweet odor when exhumed, which is either a divine sign or the result of embalming fluids and ointments, depending on whether one prefers their explanations supernatural or natural.
Like the corpses, claims of incorruptibility wither upon examination. The Catholic Church declared Francesca Romana incorruptible when she died in1440, yet only bones remained when her tomb was opened two centuries later. In another case, Atlas Obscura reporter Elizabeth Harper wrote that Anna Maria Taigi looks incorrupt from a distance when viewed in her coffin at San Crisogono church in Rome. But get closer and one notices that her allegedly wrinkled skin is really made of wax. When Harper asked the man who oversaw San Crisogono’s relics about this, he explained this method was intended to “preserve an honest impression of her the moment she was discovered in her grave.” That’s fine if you work for Madame Tussauds; it’s quite another if you are trying to pass off the corpse as immune to decomposition.
Similar was the case of St. Paula Frassinetti, who died in the 19th Century. She appeared incorrupt when she was moved to a new tomb a quarter century after her death. But this was the result of saintly storage methods. With those methods gone, her body began the normal decomposition, at which point acid was applied as a preservative, which again is fine if one is not claiming a miracle.
In addition to Ötzi, there are other natural examples of somewhat-incorruptibility. Nearly a thousand bodies have been exhumed from the peat bogs of northern Europe, where a combination of cold and chemical processes preserve soft tissue. Peat acid dissolves the bones but leaves the soft tissue rubber-like and with a tanned appearance.
In 1952, a Hindu man was touted as an example of incorruptibility, but he in fact showed nothing unusual for an embalmed corpse kept in optimal conditions. Fifty years later, the body of Buddhist monk Hambo Lama Itigelov was exhumed. His condition was described by eyewitness monks as being akin to someone who had died only two days before. However, a video of the exhumation shows his body more resembled a mummy and a pathologist’s report found the body had been preserved with bromide salts. The lama remains in the lotus at a temple in Russia, either a well-preserved corpse or an immortal in a deep trance experiencing Nirvana.