August 1, 2009

Questions Regarding the Postmortem Smile of Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi

I received some questions to ponder regarding the alleged miracle of Elder Joseph's postmortem smile reported here. Some have dismissed it as a medical mystery that should not be simply accepted as a miracle without scientific analysis, while others have objected that a piece of cloth can be traced in the photos shutting the mouth of the Elder. I will give my observations in light of these questions.

I agree we should not throw out the word "miracle" for everything we think comes from God unless there is actual confirmation or evidence for it being a supernatural event. So let us examine some simple facts to see if the word "miracle" is applicable to this unusual circumstance. Of course, I am doing this only in light of the acceptance of the Elder's sanctity and the fact that he was a man of many spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. I am furthermore accepting the testimony of the eye-witnesses as true.

To come to a more objective conclusion I went through a bunch of medical sources on the subject of rigamortis, postmortem movements, and even of cases of smiling dead people.

I should point out initially that this "miracle" is not entirely unique in Christian tradition, as is claimed. For eample, according to the biography of St. Symeon Stylite, he would not allow any woman to come near his pillar, not even his own mother, reportedly telling her, "If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come." Martha submitted to this. Remaining in the area, she also embraced the monastic life of silence and prayer. When she died, Symeon asked that her remains be brought to him. He reverently bid farewell to his dead mother, and, according to the account, a smile appeared on her face.

There seems to be a consensus from the various sources that upon death the muscles relax and it takes no less than 2 hours for rigamortis to set it in. Rigamortis lasts any where from 24-36 hours, though it could last a few days longer and unlikely to last any less.

Furthermore, regarding postmortem movement, it appears that this cannot happen during any time while in rigamortis (usually the facial muscles are one of the first to stiffen). Sometimes right after death the body starts convulsing as it releases oxygen and muscles begin to relax which could in turn cause movement. Nothing happens during rigamortis, but when that time ends the muscles will again relax and could cause movement many days after a corpse is deceased.

As far as smiling dead people are concerned, there seems to be a consensus also that it is impossible to have a natural smile while dead no matter how happy you are when dying. Smiling requires muscles and since the muscles relax it cannot be maintained. However, if the head is a bit lifted you could die with your mouth closed and when rigamortis sets in the side muscles of the mouth could make you to appear to be smiling when they stiffen. Also, before embalming, someone could force a smile on a corpse for the funeral.

In the case of Elder Joseph, upon death we know that his muscles relaxed and his mouth opened and he died in that position. Interestingly rigamortis set in quickly while his mouth was open. We know the monks tried to close his mouth for the funeral service but could not. Also, when rigamortis sets in, you cannot tie anything around the mouth to close it either; it must be tied while the muscles are still relaxed and releasing the oxygen. Postmortem movements where rigamortis sets in are impossible also. The amazing fact in all this is that the smile occurred 45 minutes after death while in a state of rigamortis. Also, mouths, like eyes, do not close on their own once opened after death though they can do the opposite.

Also, I studied all the pictures I possess to get a better idea of what happened. Within the first 45 minutes of death it appears that the only thing around Elder Joseph's neck was the Great Schema. The smile actually happened while he was wearing only the Great Schema and nothing else around his neck. Later on at some point they placed a black monastic funeral sheet of some sort around him which in closeup shots make it appear his mouth was tied. Below are some better photographs I found that reveal this.

Is it a miracle? In light of this objective evidence, though I am no expert, I definitely would not dismiss it as not being a miracle. It is certainly unusual and not normal thus making it very appropriate. And usually anything unusual in a saintly person does have a purpose and is more likely to be a miracle rather than in any other normal circumstance.