The Incorruptibles

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." (1 Corinthians 15:54)

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the followers of the saintly Father Zosima are scandalized when his body begins to putrefy shortly after his death. If Zosima proved so corruptible in the flesh, they reasoned, perhaps he was corruptible in other ways as well. According to Russian Orthodox belief, the incorruptibility of a holy man’s body in death was considered a sign of sanctification.

Aware of this tradition, Joseph Stalin ordered that Lenin’s body be embalmed and put on permanent display in hopes of persuading the Russian peasantry that he was some kind of saint as well. To carry out this task, the Soviet Politburo appointed an “immortalization committee,” which hired biochemists to find a way to preserve the departed leader’s remains in perpetuity. Lenin’s chief embalmer enjoyed special privileges under Stalin’s regime, even escaping the purges of the 1930s, since continuing treatments were required to keep up appearances. To this day, Lenin’s face and hands are treated with moisturizers and preservatives twice each week, and his entire body is submerged in a chemical bath every 18 months

Roman Catholic authorities are careful to disclaim any direct link between bodily incorruptibility and saintliness. However, candidates for sainthood are routinely exhumed as part of the process of canonization. If the remains have not decayed, they may be placed in a glass coffin and displayed beneath the altar of their church or in an alcove nearby as one of the so-called “incorruptibles.” The coffin is filled with nitrogen to counter any corrosive effects from exposure to oxygen. There may also be certain cosmetic enhancements in the event the body starts to show signs of decomposition after being disinterred. For example, the remains of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the illiterate miller’s daughter who reported visions of the Virgin Mary at a grotto in Lourdes, were fitted with a wax mask after the body had become partially mummified.

Accounts of bodily incorruptibility are among the best-documented of all miracles attributed to the saints. Yet notwithstanding the trafficking in saintly relics that once filled the coffers of the medieval church, it’s hard to image what is gained in this day and age by displaying these waxworks effigies. If immortality is our aim, and we are destined to exchange our perishable bodies for imperishable ones, as St. Paul put it, why hang on to the husks, no matter how well preserved? It seems that our horror of death has merely engendered new horrors in response. Beneath the waxen mask of St. Bernadette, lying in peaceful repose in the Cathedral at Lourdes, is a blackened corpse with sunken eyes and nose, the skin already covered with patches of mildew when the body was exhumed in 1919. There is no victory over death here, only the denial of it.

1 Corinthians 15:42-54

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