You live, you die, you rot. At least, most of us do. However, there have been people throughout history whose bodies have stubbornly refused to decompose as expected. These “incorruptible” corpses are often the remains of people said to be saints or revered figures. Are these bodies miracles, scientific curiosities, or fakes? Keep in mind that modern embalming techniques only date back to the American Civil War and therefore were not available prior to the 1860s.
1. SAINT BETINA ZITA
Saint Zita was revered during her life essentially for being a very nice lady whom everyone really liked. A sort of cult grew up around her after her death in the year 1272. More than 300 years later, her body was exhumed and found not to have decayed. Don’t believe it? Go see for yourself: Her body (which dried out and became essentially mummified since being exhumed) is still on public display at the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. Her face isn’t exactly perfect after drying out, but you’ve got to admit that the old girl looks pretty good for someone over seven hundred years old.
2. DASHI-DORZHO ITIGILOV
Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was a Buddist lama who hailed from Russia. In 1927, while still very much alive, Itigilov asked his fellow lamas to begin funeral rites for him. Sitting in the lotus position, he died during meditation. In his will, he asked specifically to be buried exactly as he had died. Curiously, he also asked that his body be exhumed after a few years.
As of 2002, Itigilov’s body was described as “in the condition of someone who had died 36 hours ago.” Since that time, its appearance has been changed by the salt it was packed in, which has to make you wonder whether the lama was so incorruptible after all.
3. ‘LA DONCELLA’
Roughly 500 years ago, a 15-year-old Incan girl was led up the steep sides of a mountain in Argentina. A sharp blow to the head killed her, and she was left seated with her clothes and ceremonial objects as a religious sacrifice. The cool temperatures and dry, low-oxygen air of the Andes preserved her body for centuries until it was discovered in 1999. We don’t know what her real name is, but her modern nickname is “La Doncella,” which means “The Maiden.”
4. LADY XIN ZHUI
Lady Xin Zhui was the wife of a minor Chinese nobleman during the Han dynasty. She lived an extravagant lifestyle for the time and place, eating a lot of meat and generally sitting around not needing to work. Luxury eventually caught up with her when she died, morbidly obese, of a heart attack in the year 163 BCE.
When her body was discovered in 1971, her skin was still soft and her limbs could still flex at the joints. Lady Zhui is no Snow White, but the preservation after over 2000 years is still uncanny. It is unclear what caused her body to remain in this state. There are no signs of either embalming or sainthood.
5. SAINT CATHERINE LABOURE
She was buried after her death in 1876, and remained so until 1933, when her body was exhumed as part of her official beatification. An examination concluded that “the body is in perfect state of preservation, and its joints are still supple.” Today you can visit her body in Paris and see Catherine Laboure just as she was in life—with one exception: The praying hands that you see are fake. The real ones were severed and are stored separately, in memory of the lap they supposedly rested on.