Recent images of a dead nun’s body in Missouri have created a buzz online, amid reports that the religious sister’s body may be incorruptible.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, was the foundress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. She died in 2019.
When the abbey community at Gower Abbey, outside of Kansas City, exhumed Sister Wilhelmina’s body this month to move it into the monastery chapel, they found that it did not appear to have decomposed, despite a large crack in the coffin through which water could enter.
News of the body has attracted scores of Catholic pilgrims, eager to see a possible miracle, while the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has emphasized that “it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”
How are cases of possible incorruptibility investigated?
Is a mysteriously preserved body a sign of sainthood?
And what if the body is only partially incorrupt?
You’ve got questions, and The Pillar has answers. Read on to learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about bodies that don’t decay.
Wait a second…What does it mean to be incorruptible?
“Incorruptible” is a term used to describe a body that has fully or partially resisted the natural decomposition process after death.
The phenomenon is not common, but there are more than 300 saints whose bodies were exhumed decades or even centuries after their death, and showed no signs of physical decay.
St. Cecilia is believed to be the first saint whose body was incorruptible. She was martyred somewhere around 177 – 230 AD. Nearly 1500 years later, during a renovation of the church where she was buried, her remains were exhumed, and her body was discovered to be incorrupt, as if she were asleep in the same position in which she had been buried centuries earlier.
Other incorruptible saints throughout Church history have included Agatha, John of the Cross, Charles Borromeo, Teresa of Avila, and Francis Xavier.
How can someone be “partially” incorruptible?
Some incorrupt saints are discovered to be – as St. Cecilia was – completely unaffected by the passage of time. Others have decomposed at a much slower than normal rate, but they still show some signs of decomposition. In other cases, part of the body has remained preserved while the rest of the body has decayed.
For example, the tongue and jaw of St. Anthony of Padua, the well-known preacher, were found incorrupt decades after his death and are today kept in a reliquary at the basilica in northern Italy bearing his name.
In the case of Sister Wilhelmina, it is not clear how much of her body may be incorrupt. Photos circulating online seem to show a life-like face that has resisted decomposition, while skin on the nun’s hands appears leathery and dehydrated, but not rotting.
Cases of incorrupt saints can sometimes be confusing. When St. Vincent de Paul’s body was first exhumed in 1712, half a century after his burial, it was found to be completely incorrupt. But when it was exhumed a second time, for his canonization 25 years later, the body had decomposed due to flooding — except for his heart, which remains to this day perfectly preserved. There are several other documented cases of saints’ bodies being preserved at the time of their unburial, but later undergoing a normal decomposition process.
Due to the potential of incorrupt bodies to decay after being exhumed, a wax mask is sometimes applied to a saint’s body before it is placed on display for veneration. This can lead to confusion among pilgrims who see the body with a wax coating.
Similarly, effigies containing relics of saints may be mistaken for the incorrupt bodies of those saints.
Does a person’s whole body have to be incorrupt for it to “count”?
There’s no official list of incorruptible saints, and no official proclamation declaring a saint’s body to be incorruptible, so the question of what “counts” is a tricky one.
Generally, when most of a saint’s body decomposes, but one organ or body part remains intact, it is seen as a symbolic indication of their particular mode of sanctity (ie St. Anthony’s tongue was not actually holier than the rest of his body, but he was known as a great preacher).
In De Cadaverum Incorruptione, written in the mid-1800s, Pope Benedict XIV stated that an incorruptible body should only be considered miraculous when its lifelike condition is maintained for a great period of time.
What if a person was embalmed? Wouldn’t that lead them to look incorrupt?
Even an embalmed body will typically decompose in about a decade, depending on conditions. The bodies of saints determined to be incorrupt are typically exhumed decades or centuries after their death.
And most incorrupt saints were actually not embalmed. It is common in religious communities to skip the embalming process and have a simple burial – as was reportedly the case for Sister Wilhelmina.
In cases where embalming could be a feasible reason for a body’s preservation, the Church tends to err on the side of believing in a natural explanation over a supernatural one.
A few months after his beatification, Pope John XXIII’s body was exhumed and placed in the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica for veneration. The former pope’s body was in excellent condition, despite it being 38 years after his death, leading some to question whether he was incorruptible. But it soon came to light that the pope had received a thorough embalming shortly after his death, and Church authorities never embraced the idea that it had been miraculously preserved.
This is kind of confusing. At the end of the day, who determines if someone is really incorruptible?
It is a little confusing, because there’s not really an official protocol in the Church.
When a person is declared during the canonization process a Servant of God, the authentication of their tomb or mortal remains is a normal part of the inquiry into their life, explained Msgr. Jason Gray, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, who previously worked at the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.
“There's always a concern for wanting to safeguard the mortal remains, so that way there's no question of them being corrupted or contaminated,” Gray told The Pillar.
As part of that process, he said, the individual’s body is examined by a medical expert “to authenticate them, because later on, if relics are to be taken, you want to know that this in fact was the mortal remains of that person.”
The Vatican's Dicastery for the Causes of Saints has norms on the examination process, which emphasize the respect due to the human body, he said. But there are no specific norms governing an investigation into whether a body is incorrupt.
In the recent Missouri case, Sister Wilhelmina’s canonization cause has not been opened, making the veneration of her mortal remains — and the prospect of an investigation — somewhat unusual.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph released a May 22 statement, which noted the need “to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”
But when asked by The Pillar about what the investigation will entail — and who is responsible for it — a spokesperson for the diocese was not able to give a clear sense of the next steps.
The spokesperson told The Pillar that cases of incorruptibility are extremely rare, and that Sister Wilhelmina’s sainthood cause has not been opened. She added that Bishop Vann Johnston “is working to identify a process to determine the circumstances of Sister Wilhelmina’s particular condition.”
Is incorruptibility a sign of sainthood?
Not necessarily. It is piously believed that God preserves the bodies of some saints from the normal decomposition process because of their sanctity. But the Church doesn’t actually consider an incorrupt body to be one of the miracles typically required for canonization.
There are a few reasons for that.
The miracles required for sainthood must be attributed to the intercession of the person in question. In other words, it must be clear that God granted the grace of the miracle due to the prayers of the saint in heaven.
Saints’ bodies are sometimes discovered in various stages of decay, and it could be difficult to determine when cases of delayed decomposition are because of natural factors instead of miraculous preservation. It would be even more difficult to say a miraculous preservation was due to the saint’s own intercession.
In addition, the Church don’t have a way to compare anomalies in the decay of non-Catholic bodies with those of canonized men and women.
A small percentage of saints have incorruptible bodies. But because experts are not generally in the habit of checking in on dead and buried bodies to see how the decomposition process is going several decades (or centuries) later, they can’t rule out the possibility that there is some unknown scientific phenomenon that would allow a small percentage of all bodies to resist the normal process of decomposition.
So the Church doesn’t automatically take an incorrupt body as a sure sign of sanctity, although it may be a special grace granted by God to some saints.
This all feels very uncomfortable. Why are Catholics like this?
Well, Catholics aren’t the ones who decided that some saints’ bodies would be preserved without explanation.
But it’s true that Catholics seem sometimes to have a sort of morbid fascination with death, especially in a culture that is uncomfortable with the mere thought of death.
From the Capuchin crypt in Rome elaborately decorated with the bones of thousands of friars to the skulls Catholics display as a reminder of their own inevitable deaths (memento mori!), Catholic culture may sometimes appear to have a level of comfort with death that feels uncomfortable.
Then again, a faith that takes literally the Lord’s command to eat his flesh and drink his blood is not a faith for the queasy. For Catholics, death is not a final goodbye, but a doorway to eternal life.