(CNN) — Hundreds of people have traveled to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles Monastery, in rural Missouri to view a nun’s body which appears to show no signs of decay approximately four years after her death, according to the Catholic News Agency.
The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died at age 95 in 2019, was exhumed “roughly four years later” so it can be moved to its final resting place inside a monastery chapel, the Catholic News Agency reported.
When the coffin was unearthed, Lancaster’s body was apparently “incorrupt,” which in Catholic tradition refers to the preservation of the body from normal decay. The remains were intact even though the body had not been embalmed and was in a wooden coffin, according to the news outlet.
The discovery has captured the attention of some members of the church, and prompted an investigation.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph issued a statement about the discovery.
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said. “At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina 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 statement from the diocese notes “Incorruptibility” is very rare, and a “well-established process to pursue the cause for sainthood,” but the process has not begun in Lancaster’s case.
The Catholic News Agency reports that more than 100 incorruptible bodies have been canonized – their bodies defying the decaying process. In Catholicism incorruptible saints give witness to the truth of the resurrection and life that is to come.
Experts say it is not necessarily uncommon for bodies to remain well-preserved, especially in the first few years after death.
Western Carolina University Associate Professor and Director of Forensic Anthropology Nicholas V. Passalacqua told CNN 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 just things like Egyptian mummies which were intentionally preserved, but also things like the Bog Bodies of Europe which were very well preserved for thousands of years because they were in environments with low oxygen that restricted bacterial grown and access of the remains to scavengers.”
Passalacqua also noted “in general, when we bury a body at our human decomposition facility, we expect it will take ~5 years for the body to become skeletonized. That is without a coffin or any other container or wrapping surrounding the remains. So for this body, which was buried in a coffin, I personally don’t find it too surprising that the remains are relatively well preserved after only four years.”
The body will be laid out in the sisters’ chapel until May 29, according to the Catholic News Agency, when the sisters plan a rosary procession. After the procession, Sister Wilhelmina’s body will be encased in glass near the altar of St. Joseph in the chapel in order to welcome devotees.