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Mummies, Miracles and Dry, Dry Bones

By the late twentieth century, convent tradition held that the silver reliquary was an incorrupt body. When Bolognese pathologist Ezio Fulchieri, who had obtained permission to examine it, reported his findings to the nuns (adding that insect assault threatened the bones), the nuns were astonished. Their astonishment testifies to the eye-washing power of poor light and, perhaps, peer pressure. One imagines a young novice remarking, "St. Clare's body looks an awful lot like a silver corpus sanct---" and receiving a discalced kick under the table for her troubles. 

It's understandable that believers should want to see miraculous beauty. The Dorian Gray streak that runs through humanity finds validation in the highest reaches of Christian thought. In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas concludes that all of us—saints and sinners alike—will rise from the dead with bodies that are "incorruptible," "agile" and "glorious." Had there been no general horror at standing at the latter day upon the earth looking like death warmed over, the Angelic Doctor would not likely have tackled the question. 

With an earthy—if not worldly—shrewdness, the Church has sought to soothe that fear and stoke the corresponding hope, even as changing times have raised expectations. In the industrialized world, the mid-nineteenth century saw a revolution in funerary practice. The development of formaldehyde made embalming into the affordable norm, at least for the middle classes. With the beautification of the body came new, beautified language. Coffins became caskets, undertakers became morticians. Post-mortem photographs, in which decedents appeared between satin sheets, surrounded by flowers, were distributed as keepsakes.  

It was at this time when Church officials began giving saintly bodies makeovers. Pierre Imans, a Paris waxwork firm, created a light mask for St. Bernadette's darkened face. St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianny, whose face had suffered similar wear, received similar treatment. When St. Catherine Laboure was found perfectly incorrupt seventy years after burial, nothing was left to chance. Her body was infused with glycerin, and her nose—found to have been crushed—got a straightening-out. 

In such cases, the Church plays no confidence tricks. Details of these loving restorations are readily available to anyone who wants them. When a British firm fitted Padre Pio's partly decomposed face with a silicone mask, the story made international headlines. I take this as evidence that holy remains owe their drawing power to something besides fear of death and corruption, something requiring less in the way of credulity. That thing, to give it a name, is a yearning for communion with the past, a craving for reassurance that people who now seem mythical were really real. 

In Moscow, I stared into Lenin's dead face. Painstaking Soviet efforts at embalming might not have restored it to the appearance of life, but they certainly preserved its character. It wore a look of controlled fury; clearly, it belonged to a man with little patience for bourgeois counter-revolution. I also noted that it rested atop a very short body. My own shameful failure to clear five feet eight made me feel a strange kinship with Vladimir Ilyich. Had I visited a vertically cheated saint instead, who knows what kind of conversion experience might have resulted? 

But that's still a kind of voyeurism—compounded, in my case, with some light narcissism. For a truly serene attitude, see the nuns of St. Clare's community. When Fulchieri broke the news that all that remained of their founder were bones, and that these bones were home to bugs, nobody pouted. Instead, they took action, gratefully accepting Fulchieri's offer to re-bind the skeleton, and create for it a new, more secure resting place. As he worked, they serenaded him—actually, them—with hymns. "Meat, gristle or bone, Clare's still one of us" seems to have been the general mood. And that, I think, is the kind of detachment that gives attachment a good name—and vice-versa.

4/8/2011 4:00:00 AM
Max Lindenman
About Max Lindenman
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon.