First "Identification of the Body" September 22, 1909
The body was exhumed for the first time on Wednesday, September 22, 1909. The official records, which are kept in the Archives of St. Gildard, enable us to follow the identification proceedings virtually step by step.
Monsignor Gauthey, Bishop of Nevers, and the church tribunal, entered the main chapel of the convent at 8.30 a.m. A table had been placed at the entrance to the sanctuary. On it were the Holy Gospels. One by one, the three witnesses (Abbe Perreau, the Mother Superior of the order, Marie-Josephine Forestier, and her deputy), the doctors (Doctors Jourdan and David), the stonemasons, Gavillon and Boue, and the carpenters, Cognet and Mary, swore an oath to tell the truth. The party then moved on to the chapel of St. Joseph. The mayor and the deputy mayor insisted on carrying out the legal formalities in person. Once the stone had been lifted from the vault the coffin was immediately visible. It was carried to the room prepared for it and placed on two trestles covered with a cloth. On one side was a table covered with a white cloth. The body of St. Bernadette was to be placed on this table. The wooden coffin was unscrewed and the lead coffin cut open to reveal the body of St. Bernadette in a state of perfect preservation. There was not the slightest trace of an unpleasant smell. The Sisters who had buried her 30 years earlier noted only that her hands had fallen slightly to the left. But the words of the surgeon and the doctor, who were under oath, speak for themselves:
"The coffin was opened in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the mayor of the town, his principal deputy, several canons and ourselves. We noticed no smell. The body was clothed in the habit of Bernadette's order. The habit was damp. Only the face, hands and forearms were uncovered.
The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white. The skin clung to the muscles and the muscles adhered to the bones. The sockets of the eyes were covered by the eye-lids. The brows were flat on the skin and stuck to the arches above the eyes. The lashes of the right eyelid were stuck to the skin. The nose was dilated and shrunken. The mouth was open slightly and it could be seen that the teeth were still in place. The hands, which were crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting rosary. The veins on the forearms stood out.
Like the hands, the feet were wizened and the toenails were still intact (one of them was torn off when the corpse was washed). When the habits had been removed and the veil lifted from the head, the whole of the shriveled body could be seen, rigid and taut in every limb.
It was found that the hair, which had been cut short, was stuck to the head and still attached to the skull -- that the ears were in a state of perfect preservation -- that the left side of the body was slightly higher than the right from the hip up.
The stomach had caved in and was taut like the rest of the body. It sounded like cardboard when struck.
The left knee was not as large as the right. The ribs protruded as did the muscles in the limbs.
So rigid was the body that it could be rolled over and back for washing.
The lower parts of the body had turned slightly black. This seems to have been the result of the carbon of which quite large quantities were found in the coffin.
In witness of which we have duly drawn up this present statement in which all is truthfully recorded.
Nevers, September 22, 1909
Drs. Ch. David, A. Jourdan. "
The nuns washed the body and replaced it in a new coffin lined with zinc and padded with white silk. In the few hours in which it had been exposed to the air the body had started turning black. The double coffin was closed, soldered, screwed down and sealed with seven seals.
The workmen once again bore Bernadette's body into the vault.
Second "Identification of the Body"April 3, 1919
On August 13, 1913, Pope Pius X, in consequence of a decision of the Congregation of Rites, authorized the introduction of the cause of beatification and canonization of Bernadette Soubirous and signed the decree of venerability. War broke out and it was impossible to take up the case again immediately. This was not done until 1918, at which time Monsignor Chatelus was bishop of Nevers.
This made another identification of the body of the venerable Bernadette necessary. Doctor Talon and Doctor Comte were asked to undertake the examination. It took place on April 3, 1919, in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the police commissioner, representatives of the municipalities and members of the church tribunal.
Everything was just the same as at the time of the first exhumation. Oaths were sworn, the vault was opened, the body transferred to a new coffin and reburied, all in accordance with canon and civil law. After the doctors had examined the body, they retired alone in separate rooms to write their personal reports without being able to consult each other.
The two reports coincide perfectly with each other and also with Doctor Jourdan and Doctor David's report of 1909. There is one new element as regards the state of the body. This is the existence of "patches of mildew and a layer of salt which seems to be calcium salt," and which were probably the result of the body's having been washed the first time it was exhumed. We will quote only the first few lines of Dr. Comte's report:
"When the coffin was opened the body appeared to be absolutely intact and odorless. '' (Dr. Talon was more specific: "There was no smell of putrefaction and none of those present experienced any discomfort.") The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts which appear to be calcium salts. The skeleton is complete, and it was possible to carry the body to a table without any trouble. The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body. Some of the veins are still visible."
At 5 p.m. that evening the body was reburied in the chapel of Saint Joseph in the presence of the Bishop, Mother Forestier and the police commissioner.
Third "Identification of the Body"April 18, 1925
On November 18, 1923, the pope pronounced the authenticity of Bernadette's virtues and the path to beatification was open.
A third and final identification of the body was required for the proclamation of beatification. The relics, which were to go to Rome, Lourdes, or houses of the Order, were to be taken during this exhumation.
Doctor Talon and Doctor Comte were once again asked to examine the body and Doctor Comte, who was a surgeon, was to remove the relics.
The ceremony took place on April 18, 1925 forty-six years and two days after Bernadette's death. The ceremony was private as is required by canon law when beatification has not yet been pronounced. Present were the nuns from the community, the Bishop, the vicars general, the church tribunal, two "instrumental" witnesses, the two doctors, Mabille, the commissioner of police, and Leon Bruneton, representing the municipal authorities.
At 8.30 a.m. in the chapel of the convent the two doctors, whose task it was to examine the body for the official identification, and the masons and carpenters who were to open the vault and take out the coffin swore the usual oaths on the gospels.
"I swear and promise to faithfully accomplish the task with which I have been entrusted", declared the doctors, "and to tell the truth in the replies I make to questions put to me and in my written statements on the examination of the body of the Venerable Servant of God, Sister Marie-Bernard Soubirous, and on the removal of the relics. This, I promise and swear. So help me God and the Holy Gospels." And each of the workmen took an oath: "With my hand on God's gospels I swear and promise to faithfully accomplish the task with which I have been entrusted. So help me God and the Holy Gospels."
The group then fetched the coffin of Bernadette from the chapel of Saint Joseph in procession and carried it to the chapel of Saint-Helen.
Here are some passages from Doctor Comte's report:
"At the request of the Bishop of Nevers I detached and removed the rear section of the fifth and sixth right ribs as relics; I noted that there was a resistant, hard mass in the thorax, which was the liver covered by the diaphragm. I also took a piece of the diaphragm and the liver beneath it as relics, and can affirm that this organ was in a remarkable state of preservation. I also removed the two patella bones to which the skin clung and which were covered with more clinging calcium matter.
Finally I removed the muscle fragments right and left from the outsides of the thighs. These muscles were also in a very good state of preservation and did not seem to have putrefied at all. " Doctor Comte continues: "From this examination I conclude that the body of the Venerable Bernadette is intact, the skeleton is complete, the muscles have atrophied, but are well preserved; only the skin, which has shriveled, seems to have suffered from the effects of the damp in the coffin. It has taken on a greyish tinge and is covered with patches of mildew and quite a large number of crystals and calcium salts; but the body does not seem have putrefied, nor has any decomposition of the cadaver set in, although this would be expected and normal after such a long period in a vault hollowed out of the earth."
Three years later, in 1928, Doctor Comte published "report on the exhumation of the Blessed Bernadette" in the second issue of the Bulletin de l'Association medical de Notre-Dame de Lourdes. The surgeon was particularly struck by the state of preservation of the liver:
"What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon. "