Have we all heard of Dasha-Dorzho Itigilov? I had not until today (I love a random podcast in the morning), but I’m quite often a little late to the party when it comes to world news. The quick history is that he was born in Russia in 1852, and was orphaned early in life. From this tragic start emerged a driven young man who gained two degrees in philosophy and medicine, and made considerable contributions to the medical world by writing a massive encyclopedia of pharmacology. Not content with being your average high achiever Itigilov, sometimes spelled Itigelov, also became a Buddhist monk, one of the really high up ones, one of the lamas!
In 1927 he had a feeling he was going to die and started reciting a Buddhist prayer for the dead and invited his companions to join him. This request was met with a little reluctance because at the time Itigilov appeared to be in fine fettle and not remotely dead, but join in they did, it’s hard to turn down a well respected and beloved monk (the equivalent of telling the old Queen Mum that no she couldn’t have that extra glass of sherry). Itigilov was proved right though. As the prayer recitation took place, his life came to an end.. sort of.
Side note – I quite like the idea of getting to old age and one morning just knowing it’s the day to pop your clogs. What would I do with that knowledge? Truthfully, not a lot. Probably dress in my most favorite comfy clothes, go for a walk, maybe take a very final swim in the ocean, or find a peaceful spot to sit with a soft fuzzy blanket and admire the view. The appealing factors here are peace, comfort, and acceptance of the end of a long life. As opposed to the other scenario where I am screaming profanities at a grim reaper’s minion, “What the fuck? NO, bugger off, and don’t come back until I say so! I have got stuff to DO.”
The astute of you will have noticed that little cliff hanger about Itigilov’s life coming to an end “sort of”. No he did not turn into a vampire, although I do very much like that idea for a made for TV bro-com movie: Blood Sucking Buddhas.
No, here’s what happened. Prior to his death, Itigilov gave instructions that when his time came he wanted to be buried sitting upright in the lotus position, and that his body should be exhumed after 75 years. A tad more unusual last request than playing “I Did It My Way” at the funeral, but no judgement here, whatever floats your afterlife boat.
The body was initially exhumed after 30 years (sources differ as to whether or not Itigilov had requested to be exhumed twice, or if the first time was a mistake, a group of lamas getting a bit curious, or just someone suddenly realizing that the missing key to the wine cellar had dropped out of their pocket into the coffin). Those who saw the body were shocked to discover that there had been no decomposition. He looks the same, the skin slightly leathery but still soft and supple. They re-buried the coffin without taking any photographs (we could speculate that they were worried about what would happen if the news got out, or we could also posit the theory that it was the 1950s and having a camera constantly tucked into your robes was still some decades off in the future), and then waited until 2002 when the full 75 years were up before going back to it.
2002, Itigilov has now been buried the same amount as time as he was alive. The second exhumation is a very different affair, cameras, reporters, authorities, scientists… quite the party. Lo and behold, they find the same thing as before: Itigilov is still flexible and not decomposing. Samples of hair and nail tissue are taken and examining doctors conclude that his tissues are in the same state as one would expect to find on a corpse that was only 12 hours old. Today, nearly 100 years after his death, Itigilov sits in a glass box located in a temple for devotees to visit, and I do mean devoted devotees. This is not a stop on the tourist trail for gaggles of flip-flopped selfie takers.
Theories regarding how Itigilov came to be so well preserved range from “He was buried in salt,” to “The monks secretly embalmed him,” to “It’s all a hoax.”
He was indeed buried in salt – but salt only preserves the outer layer of a body, it won’t stop the internal organs decomposing.
There was no trace of embalming chemicals, or scarring that would have occurred if internal organs had been removed during a mummification process.
Does not appear to be a hoax, scientists in labs are corroborating that the skin tissue is real and untainted…. but the last three years have shown us that a surprisingly large number of people don’t believe in science and actually quite enjoy saying things are hoaxes.
The theory which probably has the most support is that he entered such a deep meditation that he effectively put his body into a long term hibernation. Does that mean that Itigilov is technically alive? Doctors say emphatically no! The low body temperature is absolute proof that this being is dead. However, could it mean that Itigilov was buried alive? Um… well yes, that is a possibility. I say let’s not dwell on that.
Instead let’s look at another theory, one involving the humble legume. Be they in the form of beans, lentils, or peanuts, legumes contain high levels of bromine, Itigilov’s skin analysis revealed that his bromine level was 40 times higher than expected. An excess of bromine in the body is typically not something we think of as a good thing, it inhibits the central nervous system, yep that’s right the brain and the spinal column and all the stuff branching off from that which send and receive vital signals around the body. So the excess bromine could conceivably suppress the body’s sensitivity, including its reaction to stimulants that normally bring on decay. AHAH!
Why are Itigilov’s bromine levels so high? Simply put, it’s not uncommon for people living spartan lives and a diet of unfancy foods to consume a shit load- well known technical measurement – of legumes. They’re cheap, easily grown, widely available, filling and nutritious. How could we test this theory? A good start might be to conduct some skin analysis on the other corpses that don’t rot. Oh yes, other corpses! While Itigilov may be the best known non-decaying monk in the world, he is not alone. There are multiple cases of seemingly random people whose bodies simply have not decayed the way dead bodies are supposed to. Although some are monks and saints, others are just normal people who don’t appear to have reached any state of enlightenment during their lives, like La Doncella, the Incan girl who was slain 500 years ago and found perfectly preserved in 1999, or Lady Xin Shui who died of a heart attack brought on from morbid obesity in 163 BCE. Different lifestyles, different locations, different causes and times of death. Possibly the one thing they share is a love of lentils.