Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Incorruptible and Forever

Highgate Cemetery, in London

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)

As I mentioned in my post on reliquaries, some relics are actually whole saints, preserved in a state that is called "incorruptible". This means "the property of a body — usually a human body — that does not decompose after death...
Incorruptibility is seen as distinct from the good preservation of a body, or mummification. Incorruptible bodies are often said to have the Odour of Sanctity, a sweet smell...if a body remains incorruptible after death, this is generally seen to be a sign that the individual is a saint. The converse is not true: not every saint is expected to have an incorruptible corpse."
[wiki] And incorruptible bodies, according to the Catholic Church, must be bodies that have not been embalmed or otherwise preserved.

Here's a question, though: "Is decomposition a BAD thing?"

I am always torn about this supposedly miraculous incorruptibility, mostly because so many of them really look mummified. I really want them to be real, because it's such a fascinating and weird addition to the minutae of the world: I mean, what a marvelous concept, to be so outside the physical order of things that you smell like flowers, or keep your dewy complexion, even though you have departed this earthly plane. I suppose it seems glamorous, extraordinary even, to leave behind whatever mystical quality makes your flesh stay and stay, as if you had never left. And yet, there is something creepy, something unnatural about it, too. And so often a dead saint is described as "fresh and sweet as the day they died" - but then when you see pictures of them they don't look much different than some of the mummies in, for example, Guanajuato, Mexico, none of whom are considered saintly in the least.

Incorruptibility has shown up in many different religions, but Catholicism is the place where it really has taken hold. With the belief in relics came a desire to exhume the corpses of people who had been particularly devout or who had caused miracles during their lifetimes. A good number of the bodies thus exhumed were proclaimed incorrupt, which was for a long time a real weight in the argument for someone's beatification.

Theoretically, accidentally preserved corpses are typically discolored, wrinkled, distorted, skeletal looking and lacking in elasticity, whereas a truly incorruptible body doesn't have any of those characteristics: instead, they are moist and flexible, and often retain certain organs intact, such as the liver or heart. Unlike most long-dead corpses, incorruptibles supposedly have a sweet, almost floral, smell; and all this even after years in damp, corrosive places.

The reliquary containing St. Sergius' incorrupt body. St. Sergius of Radonezh died in 1392.

Unfortunately, the really old saints, such as Sergius of Radonezh are kept in very old reliquaries, and are therefore mostly closed from view; it is only since the 1700s or so, when glass became a proper industry, that large reliquaries have been able to incorporate enough glass to make it possible to to get a really good view of the body thus preserved. Thus, the incorruptibles in more recent reliquaries, such as the head of the amazing St. Catherine of Siena, whom the folk at Curious Expeditions went to see, are actually on display. A surprising number of incorruptible saints are quite recent, with a number of them living and dying in the 19th century; and you can actually see photographs of them when you read about them in Wikipedia or elsewhere.

I was impressed and suspicious when I saw the remains of St. Bernadette Soubirous, who died in 1879 and was exhumed several times before being put in her glass reliquary in Nevers, France. Her face is so perfect, so impossibly serene and attractive, that I had difficulty not smelling a rat. Then I found out that during the last exhumation but one, the ever-so-helpful folk who did it actually washed the body, so when they re-exhumed her in 1909 there was a slight discoloration to her face. This led to cosmetic procedures: "A precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans [a high-quality mannequin designer and manufacturer] in Paris could make a light wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. This was common practice for relics in France, as it was feared that although the body was mummified, the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public. Imprints of the hands were also taken for the presentation of the body." [wiki]

This explained everything! In fact, I was still suspicious, for it seems to me that "sunken eyes and nose" do not sound uncorrupted, never mind the discoloration, which was put down to the washing. On looking at the picture again, however, I can indeed see the underlying structure of a face, with that weird veneer that the wax mask gives to it. It's odd. Part of me is simply skeptical. But part of me wants it to be true, because it would be another unexplained thing in a far-too explained world. I find the whole process of masking relics strangely bizarre, a queer kind of hygenicization of something that should be startling. I already struggle not to feel the wool is being pulled over my eyes, or perhaps (to be kinder) I simply feel that there is a strong sort of wishful thinking going on by those involved; so for the Church to indulge in this sort of cosmeticism when the miraculousness should be allowed its own self-evidence - it makes me feel as if I'm being patronized. I'd much rather see the real thing, miraculous or not.

The question of incorruptibility implies a certain belief, very present in many religions, but particularly Catholicism, that the earthly sphere is a place of sin and somehow, being earthly, less...important. A lesser place than the place beyond death, where we will all go to reap our rewards, rewards that are better than those we receive here. So when someone's earthly remains, those parts of them that were left behind when they went to go to the spiritual world (to meet their Maker), don't follow the natural processes of decay, it is symbolic of the purity, the lack of sin, when they lived here on earth. In other words, they were so saintly in regular life that the sinlessness permeated their fleshly self, and it remained "above" such things as returning to the dust from whence they came.

I could be describing this inaccurately, but this is as close as I can get to what seems to be the thinking.

The problem with this thinking, for me - who is not Catholic, and not studied in Catholicism - is the basic tenet that the natural, "earthly" world is a lesser world than the one we go on to after death (whatever that may be). The very word "incorruptible" implies this attitude, as if the natural processes were a corruption, dirtying what is holy; whereas I find, on looking around me, that the intricacy of the decomposition process is incredible, amazing - miraculous, if you will - whether they be the product of some Creator or the result of some intricate evolutionary processes. The completeness, the incredible tidiness of it, is astounding, particularly when you look carefully at the processes that happen after death.

A white-backed vulture. There's a good reason vultures have no feathers on their heads.

In a natural environment, there are animals who live almost solely on dead bodies; they are, in essence, nature's janitors. They decrease the amount of body that needs to decompose, scatter the bones, and generally reduce what is there. Then a host of smaller janitors move in, breaking the remains down farther, carrying it away and dispersing it until there is very little left. What remains is then covered with leaves or dead plant matter, which in turn keeps whatever is left moist so that it can be fully dissolved by bacteria - with the exception of bones, which, happily for science, sometimes live on for millenia.

I think one of the things that people find difficult about this process (aside from things like smell and general asthetics) is that, in essence, the body is being eaten, being devoured by the agents of the soil. We have trouble thinking about why anything would want to eat such a revolting meal. But just think about it: if there was ever any sense of divinity in the universe, wouldn't it be symbolized by the fact that there are creatures out there who prefer to eat something so (to us) repulsive? That in this perfectly balanced world, everything is provided for, even the redistribution of our bodies' nutrients back to the soil, so that fruit can be made and flowers can flourish? There is nothing so wonderful, in my mind, as the fact that something so unwanted as a dead body can be turned into something so desirable as a flower. And all the things which do that work for us - buzzards and blowflies and their ilk - should be venerated for the job they do to make our world as beautiful as it is.

Which brings me to another historical point of view about nature: that line we draw, the one which is so clear and so difficult to define - the line between humans and nature. There are many, many ways that people of European descent try to distinguish themselves as separate from animals, and death is one of the biggies. Embalming, solid-metal caskets, crypts, mummification, you name it: we try to cheat nature out of reclaiming us, and prove that we are not simply animals, to lie down and be taken by the soil. The preservation of bodies is not a new concept, but it has lasted surprisingly long, considering how crowded our earth has become. It was only recently, for example, that the first person of European descent was cremated here in the U.S. (see this great article from the other Cabinet, about Theosophists and cremation), because up until the last century, nearly everyone believed they would not be able to go to Heaven unless their bodies were preserved intact.

There is a movement, begun in England in the 1990's, to make the burial industry more ecologically friendly, called "the alternative death movement," toward creating nature preserves where remains are interred with cardboard or other biodegradable caskets, and the only markers are native plants or stones. The bodies are not embalmed, and some are even simply wrapped in a shroud. The intense beauty of this kind of burial, to be returned to the embrace of the earth so as to nourish the land, seems to me far more mysterious and inspirational than the idea of leaving behind a moist and flexible carapace that is never allowed to go...well, home.

And really, the concept of forever is hard to grasp. Does having your remains stay immovable, fixed, speak more of eternity to you? Or does the more fluid, circular idea of matter constantly recycled - that your remains become part of the soil, then part of plants, then perhaps eaten by an herbivore, which in turn is eaten by another person, thus carrying some small part of you on in any number of others' bodies - seem vaster and more eternal? I think I would have to go with the latter. I understand the miraculousness of saints who linger, to help their supplicants; but ultimately, I find I would not want it for myself.

Ursula LeGuin talks about this in a different way in the last couple of her Earthsea books: this need to herd the dead into a place of their own, and the way that the unnaturalness of it begins to take its toll. It's a more metaphorical approach, but the idea that our natural cycle is to return to the earth, to the wholeness of everything, is well-presented.

I suppose the remains of saints are important in that they leave something behind for people to venerate. It is a kindness, a vehicle for more miracles, if you are a believer of those things. But for the rest of us, it is at this point just an industry, one that makes a great deal of money. If you have ever watched Six Feet Under, especially the episodes where the large corporation is trying to take over their small family funeral business, you may get some inkling. But try googling "casket manufacturer", and you'll come up with a really amazing peek into a big-business operation.

My friend Gwyan once did an art piece about how a lot of less-wealthy graves in Oakland, California got moved from the cemetery to make room for more graves. He found a mortuary catalog and printed flyers for caskets, from the Solid Bronze casket (yes, many coffins are actually metal these days) down to the Cardboard Casket, and posted them along the route the disenterred had taken from the cemetery to their new location. This from the same person who went with some others from the Cacophony Society (who were also involved with the origins of Burning Man) on a tour of the newly-abandoned California School of Mortuary Science, where all kinds of amazing things were unearthed, including a full glass bottle of LyfLyk - "For the velvety appearance of living tissue" (many thanks to the Frigid Fluid company for continuing to carry this fascinating product).

But I digress (eww!).

Abney Park Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery, in London, is a famous example of what happens when the burial industry goes awry: nature takes over, with quite wonderful results: leaning angels point to heaven, ivy from ancient wreaths has instead wreathed itself around wonderful Victorian monuments. The cemetery was built during the Victorian era, when the small local churchyards could no longer maintain the number of burials required. A ring of seven cemeteries were built in a ring around London, known as The Magnificent Seven, and an era of seriously fashionable Gothic burials was ushered in.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for us), the companies who built these cemeteries simply didn't have the foresight to put money away for the future maintenance of the park, so when the cemetery was full, no more money was coming in and maintenance on it ceased altogether. By 1975, despite an annex across the road (where you can see Karl Marx's tomb), it had become such a financial disaster that they actually closed it, and it was only because a trust was formed and efforts made to save the cemetery that it hasn't completely fallen into ruin. Still, those intervening years have done wonders for the atmosphere of the place, and I would put it, along with its smaller sister cemetery, Abney Park in Hackney, as one of my top ten places to see in London. In fact Highgate was the scenery for a lot of the 1960's Hammer Horror movies, so if you want to do a little armchair tourism, you could watch a vampire flick or two.

In any case, this fearfulness, this attitude toward "corruption", is a conundrum not easily solved. To be separated from your loved ones forever - or, more hopefully, until they join you wherever - can be terrible to contemplate. No one knows for sure how death happens, and what happens to that meaningful spark that is you, when you go. Stepping off into a dark place is not an easy business. But to fear the breakdown of one's body, that return of your less meaningful parts to whence they came, should not be a fearful process, because you're not there anymore. It seems to me it is a gift you can give to the universe.

Don't get me wrong, if you want to become incorruptible and be put in a really cool reliquary, I'm not going to stop you. We all need some miraculous weirdness to keep us interested, keep the wonder going. ...I'm just saying, let's not all do it.

Some links for your perusal:

The Mummy Locator, with all the information you could ever want about mummies - this page points to Guanajuato.

A really great site all about why and how not to spend a lot of money on fancy caskets.

A directory of places in the U.S. that do green burials, and information on home funerals and other back-to-basics ideas.

A very minimalist site selling cardboard and other self-assembly caskets for as low as $49.95.


annie said...

Wow. Fantastic post. Fascinating, invigorating, etc.

Liam said...

Great post. I'd like to comment, though, on the question of Catholicism and the attitude towards the physical world. There always has been great tension in Christianity in general between the idea of the goodness of God's creation, on one hand, and the superiority of the world of the spirit on the other. Still, Catholicism is an intensely physical religion -- bread and wine, holy water, incense, music, art -- one in which all the senses are involved in worship. The Incarnation and transubstantiation both imply a dramatic mixing of the earthly and the divine. Part of the reason that relics are so venerated is because of the belief in resurrection of the body -- a redemption of the physical world at the end of time. So it's really quite complicated.

At any rate, I've never understood the desire to embalm corpses to keep them a little while longer from corruption. I personally would rather the mortuary technicians leave my poor body in peace.

noel tanti said...

great post which reminded of easter before the last which i had spent on the island of corfu... have a post of it here with the mummified corpse (at least i think it is cause it looked like it was) of their patron saint spiridion being paraded in the streets...

Peace Jaway said...

I second that. All I might add is, 'excellent'. Thanks for sharing that so eloquently.