(News) — Hundreds of people have traveled to the Benedictine monastery of Mary, Queen of Apostles in rural Missouri to view the body of a nun that appears to show no signs of decomposition approximately four years after her death, according to the Catholic News Agency.
The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died at the age of 95 in 2019, was exhumed “approximately four years later” to be transferred to its final resting place inside a monastery chapel, the Catholic News Agency reported.
When the coffin was unearthed, Lancaster’s body was apparently “uncorrupted”, which in Catholic tradition refers to the preservation of the body from normal decay. The remains were intact despite the fact that the body had not been embalmed and was in a wooden coffin, according to the news agency.
The discovery has caught the attention of some members of the Church and has prompted an investigation.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph issued a announcement about the discovery.
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably aroused widespread interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said. “At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of Sister Wilhelmina’s mortal remains to allow for a thorough investigation… Bishop [James] Johnston invites all the faithful to continue praying during this time of investigation for God’s will.”
The diocese’s statement notes that “incorruptibility” is very rare, and a “well-established process for pursuing the cause of sainthood,” though it has not begun in Lancaster’s case.
The Catholic News Agency notes that more than 100 incorruptible bodies—defying the process of decomposition—have been canonized. In Catholicism, the incorruptible saints testify to the truth of the resurrection and eternal life.
Experts say, however, it is not uncommon for bodies to be well preserved, especially in the first few years after death.
Associate Professor and Director of Forensic Anthropology at Western Carolina University Nicholas V. Passalacqua told News in an email: “It’s hard to say how common this is, because bodies are rarely exhumed after burial. But there are many famous cases of well-preserved human remains.Not only the Egyptian mummies, which were intentionally preserved, but also the swamp mummies in Europe, which were preserved very well for thousands of years because they were in low-oxygen environments, which restricted bacterial growth and access of remains to scavengers”.
Passalacqua also noted that “in general, when we bury a body in our human decomposition facility, we expect it to take about 5 years to skeletonize. That’s without a coffin or any other container or wrapping surrounding the remains. So in the case of this corpse, which was buried in a coffin, personally I am not too surprised that the remains are relatively well preserved after only four years.”
The body will be veiled in the sisters’ chapel until May 29, according to the Catholic News Agency, where they will end the ceremony with a procession with the rosary. After the procession, Sister Wilhelmina’s body will be wrapped in glass near the altar of Saint Joseph in the chapel to receive the devotees.
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