The Incorruptible Corpse of Isleta Pueblo
All living things are meant to one day eventually die. As morbid as it may seem, it is an inevitable part of an ancient, ongoing natural cycle. We are born, we grow old, we die, and our remains turn to dust with the relentless passage of time. However, there are mysterious cases of those who mysteriously defy this unstoppable process of death and decay.
An enduring enigma in some parts of the world is the strange phenomenon of corpses that simply refuse to rot or decompose, remaining pristine for years and years after after a person’s death. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches refer to these remains as “incorruptible corpses,” and claims that they are able to avoid the ravages of time and decomposition due to their holiness or some divine power. In fact such incorruptibility is considered to be an important part of the process of glorification into sainthood. Not only corpses, but also objects are said to be capable of becoming incorruptible, with such divine relics withstanding the ravages of time and remaining in a perfect condition free of rot or grime.
There is a clear distinction made between the state of incorruptibility and mummification, embalming, or any other man-made form of corpse preservation. Wherein embalmed or otherwise preserved corpses may indeed remain in remarkably good condition long after death, they are still nevertheless only able to do so through artificial means. Such corpses also exhibit a certain unnaturalness, stiffness, or other visual cues that betray their state of death. On the other hand, incorruptible corpses are said to remain completely unspoiled, supple, and life-like. They are typically said to be as flexible as in life, indeed to look precisely as they did in life, and are totally devoid of any signs of decomposition or artificial preservation. Such corpses are also thought to exude a sweet, floral scent known as an odor of sanctity rather than the harsh smell of earth or embalming chemicals. In addition, they are believed to have achieved this state due to supernatural forces rather than from any human intervention. Whatever the cause may be, such mysteriously preserved corpses have perplexed people for centuries.
One interesting case of such a mysterious corpse comes from the mission church at Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, which was built in 1613 and is one of the oldest surviving mission churches in the United States. The story begins in the mid-1700s with a missionary by the name of Fray Juan Jose de Padilla. Padre Padilla was viciously attacked and stabbed to death by unknown assailants, upon which he was buried in the church floor near the high altar in 1756. Padre Padilla remained peacefully buried there without incident for 19 years before apparently deciding he’d had enough. During one Mass, the floor of the church, as well as the altar itself, began to rumble and quake for no discernible reason, accompanied by inexplicable strange noises from the ground. The people present could not fathom what was going on until the body of Padre Padilla suddenly broke up through the floor, which was earthen at the time.
When surprised churchgoers and clergy examined the body, they found that it not only looked as fresh as the day Padre Padilla had died, but was also remarkably moist, supple, and even warm to the touch. Even the clothes were perfectly clean and intact. By all accounts the body by every appearance seemed to still be alive. Puzzled by the apparent freshness of Padre Padilla’s body, various experts and church authorities thoroughly examined it, yet could come to no rational explanation for why it should be so strikingly well preserved. Having no concrete answers, the church decided to rebury the body, this time dressing Padre Padilla in the vestments of his Franciscan order and giving him a proper Franciscan burial. It was thought that respecting the remains in such a way would put the Padre at peace and prevent any further incidents. It didn’t work.
In 1819, Padre Padilla’s coffin once again burst through the floor of the church. Although 44 years had passed since the first time this had happened, Padre Padilla’s corpse was still completely fresh and his clothes were no more degraded than before. The remains were examined again yet no explanation could be found. The corpse was put on public display and all who looked upon it were taken aback by how a body buried so long could look so completely alive, as if the Padre were merely taking a nap.
Since so much time had passed since Padre Padilla’s death, and he had never been subjected to any sort of embalming process, the corpse was proclaimed by the church to be incorruptible. Further supporting this assessment was the clean odor of sanctity that emanated from Padre Padilla’s body, in this case reportedly smelling like freshly watered earth. The rising of Padre Padilla’s perfectly preserved corpse was deemed a miracle and the church became the object of a pilgrimage. It was said that pieces of the Padre’s clothing had miraculous healing powers.
The corpse would rise again on occasion, and Padre Padilla’s ghost was also frequently said to be sighted roaming the church grounds, further cementing his legend and entrenching him deep into the area’s myth and folklore. 134 years after the initial rising of the corpse, the French Franciscan Anton Docher was plagued by persistent knocking coming from under floor, which at the time was no longer earthen but rather covered with wooden boards. The strange knocking became so insistent that Docher decided to tear out the boards and dig under the floor to see at was going on. Legend has it that he proceeded to cut his arm in the process and developed a gangrenous infection that threatened the need for amputation. Locals said that Docher had incurred Padre Padilla’ wrath for having disturbed his grave. When Docher prayed to the Padre for forgiveness, his arm spontaneously and mysteriously healed. Docher would go on to stay at the church for many more years, becoming known as “The Padre of Isleta,” and was buried next to Padre Padilla when he died in 1928.
Padre Padilla’s corpse would continue to knock on the floor and erupt from his grave for many more years, each time looking completely intact and no more decomposed than he ever had. It wasn’t until the church covered the floor with concrete in the 1960s that such activity stopped. None of the phenomena associated with the corpse have ever been satisfactorily explained. It also remains a mystery as to whether Padre Padilla’s corpse is now finally at peace, or still knocking and clawing against the tons of concrete overhead, trying to get out once again.