Occasionally, when researching a new episode of my Skeptoid podcast, I get one of those rare “A-ha!” moments. This has happened on those rare few occasions where, as far as I can tell, my own research finds a connection that nobody else ever has before.
I had one such moment while reading up on my recent episode about incorruptibles, people whose bodies do not deteriorate after death. At a glance, the world is full of such examples. Upon deeper research, there are no such examples.
As part of my episode, I examined the ancient practice of self-mummification by a few Japanese Buddhist monks called sokushinbutsu. This 3000-day ritual called for a starvation diet and exercise to lose all body fat, then a slow self-poisoning with an arsenic rich diet, followed by an entombment and final starvation. The lack of body fat, the dehydration, and the high arsenic content actually did combine to make a reasonably good chance for mummification instead of decomposition, assuming fortuitously dry conditions in the tomb. Approximately 20 monks successfully became mummified in this way.
Then a listener wrote in to suggest I look into the case of Hambo Lama Itigelov, a Buddhist monk exhumed in 2002 in a remarkably good state of preservation. I did a huge amount of Internet searching, and found exactly zero critical reporting of the incident. YouTube has clips from a documentary and from news reports that uncritically repeat the claims that he looks like he’s been dead only 12 hours, that no evidence of chemical embalming has been found, and that his body remains flexible as if he’s merely asleep.
But I was luckily prepared with a good knowledge of sokushinbutsu, as Itigelov himself would have been. Right away, I saw the connection. Was Itigelov’s preservation a miracle unexplainable by science, or was it a modern case of sokushinbutsu?
More and more research turned up some facts about Itigelov’s life. Significantly, I discovered that he had a degree in medicine and had written a Buddhist encyclopedia on pharmacology. It turns out that a report from a pathologist present at the exhumation noted his body had a high level of bromine salts. And, in accordance with one of Itigelov’s final wishes, his body had been buried packed in salt, an obvious dessicant, used for millennia to preserve meat.
These bits of circumstantial evidence are certainly consistent with Itigelov performing sokushinbutsu. Armed with his medical knowledge and a desire to self-mummify according to tradition, he simply updated the ancient Japanese technique. By some undocumented and unknown process, he filled his body with bromine salts, which are available from a variety of naturally occurring sources. He gave instructions that his body be dessicated with salt at death. He gave instructions that he be exhumed. (He actually requested that he be exhumed after “a few years”, not the 75 years mentioned in some news reports. Due to religious restrictions in the Soviet Union, monks briefly exhumed him in secret in 1955 and again in 1973, but he was not finally exhumed until 2002.)
Much of what Itigelov did during his final days was undocumented and he certainly had ample opportunity to prepare himself in secret. What these preparations may have been is likely to remain unknown, as it’s improbable that today’s monks will allow any further testing to be done on Itigelov’s tissue. However, miracles aside, we already have ample evidence that Itigelov’s current “incorrupt” condition is perfectly consistent with an updated form of sokushinbutsu, performed by a clever medical scholar in accordance with tradition.