Death is a fascinating thing. All the more fascinating because no one knows exactly what happens after death. And no one knows what it's like to die.
Modern science thinks that it has a fair understanding of the physical aspects of death. For example post mortem changes.
We do have a far better understanding of how our mortal remains bloat up and decompose after death, than our ancestors did... Or do we???
Do we really know what happens to a body?
There are bodies which undergo algor mortis (cooling), rigor mortis (rigidity), livor mortis (lividity) and then peacefully bloat up and putrefy. And then there are bodies which become mummified and desiccated or still others which undergo safonication.
But is that all?
Jacinta Marto is a child who is venerated by the Roman catholic church. Having died in 1920 at the age of 9, her body was first exhumed in 1935. Her face was found to be in a remarkable state of preservation having eluded the normal process of decomposition. Bernadette Soubirous is a saint in the roman catholic church who died in 1879 at the age of 35. Her body was exhumed in 1909 in the process of her beatification. It was found to have evaded the process of natural decomposition.
Those are actually just two examples of the so called incorruptible bodies; people whose bodies do not decompose. In Roman Catholicism incorruptibility is one criteria of eligibility for veneration. And they can give you a long list of saints who are incorruptible. And obviously the explanation in Roman Catholicism is divine intervention.
But is it??
Eluding decomposition is more common than we actually think.
In Buddhism for example, there are many examples of monks whose bodies have defied the process of decomposition.
In 2015 January, a 200 year old body of a Buddhist monk was found in Mongolia. It was in a seated meditation posture. The body was in such a remarkable state of preservation, that even the short cropped hair, the fine facial hair and even the facial features were intact.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable cases of defying decomposition is that of Dashi Dorzho Itigilov, a Buryat Buddhist lama of Tibetan Buddhism. He died in 1927, conscious and in deep meditation and left a testament stipulating his body to be exhumed some years later. His body was exhumed several times, but its state of excellent preservation was kept secret by the monks. In 11th September 2002, Russian monks finally exhumed him and went public with the fact.
Itigilov's body was found to be in an excellent state of preservation. Forensic examination gave the conclusion that his body was in the condition of someone who had died 36 hours ago.
Deliberately preserving a body so that it can be venerated is in direct contrast with the original Buddhist doctrine which focused on the impermanence of everything physical. But still there are so many Buddhist mummies. Especially in Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism.
Sokushinbutsu, is a Japanese term which stands for the process of self mummification undertaken by Buddhist monks of Vajrayana order.
The process takes up to a decade with the monk starting on a special diet. This diet gradually starves the body reducing the body fat and moisture content. Herbs, Cycad nuts and sesame are ingested to inhibit (or minimize) gut bacteria load. A tea made of the sap of a poisonous tree, "Toxicodendron vernicifluum" is ingested regularly to repel insects and also to act as an embalming fluid of a kind.
In the Japanese method of Sokushinbutsu, when the monk is ready for death, he goes into deep meditation, and is buried alive in the sitting position in a box with an air tube and a bell. He rings the bell once a day to let the others know that he's alive. And when the bell ceases to ring the air tube is removed. But from those who attempt sokushinbhutsu, only a handful will succeed in making perfect mummies out of their bodies.
A variant of this self mummification process prevalent in Tibet involves a harness connected to the neck and the thigh. The meditator slowly suffocates himself with the harness and brings about his death. The mummy of the monk named "Sangha Tenzin", which was found in North India has undergone self suffocation in this manner.
Another interesting phenomenon associated with death of Tibetan Buddhist monks, is the rainbow body phenomenon. The rainbow body is the result of a certain level of understanding in the Tibetan Buddhism. The body of a meditation master who attains the rainbow body is supposed to dissolve into light upon his death. The metaphysical aspect of the phenomenon is of little concern to our discussion. But what is of immense interest is what allegedly happens to the body.
The body of someone who attains rainbow body, is purported to shrink gradually and eventually altogether disappear, leaving behind only the hair and nails. Some only shrink partially, dramatically reducing the size of the body.
There's a long list of names of lamas who have attained the rainbow body.
For instance Lama Khenpo A Chos, who died in 1998, was supposed to have disappeared completely leaving behind only nails and hair. The incident was investigated by a Jesuit priest, father Francis Tiso.
In 2011, Achuk Lama Rinpoche, died and his body was documented to have shrunk dramatically.
There are many eye witness accounts and recently photographic evidence demonstrating reduction of the body size. But despite everything the phenomenon had not been observed and studied. And unless something is studied properly and concluded as real by a believable body of authority of science, seeing is not believing.
Rainbow bodies could be the actual realization of E=mc2... Or it could just as easily be the result of elaborate body preparation methods of the Tibetans when attending to a diseased lama.
Unless properly studied we can't really say..
Evading decomposition is also reported among some Hindu Yogis and mystics.
The most cited example is that of Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. He died in 1952 at the age of 59. His body in contrast with the common Indian tradition, was not cremated immediately and kept for more than 20 days. He was given an initial embalming but despite the fact, the mortuary director wrote in a notarized letter that the state of preservation of the body was far more perfect than to be naturally expected under similar circumstances.
But still the fact remains..... he was embalmed.
But obviously, there are bodies that defy decomposition. And definitely not confined to one particular religion. But it may be worth noting that almost all of these so called indecomposable bodies seemed to have belonged to holy men and women of some kind. Men and women who practiced intense mental exercise and meditation. So maybe the state of mind of the dying person has a role in the subsequent state of the body.... For example most of those people may have probably died consciously in a profound state of meditation.
Or maybe the phenomenon is far more common than we actually assume it to be. For obviously, we don't routinely dig up our dead to check for decay.
But for certain, death is fascinating. All the more because we still haven't got a complete understanding of even its physical aspects....