Through the kindness of the Rev. D. A. Corbett, of the Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo, Overbrook, Pa., I have been able to secure a copy of Pope Boniface’s decree, and this at once disposes of the assertion that dissection was forbidden or anatomy in any way hampered by it…[:]
“Title–Concerning Burials. Boniface VIII. Persons cutting up the bodies of the dead, barbarously boiling them, in order that the bones, being separated from the flesh, may be carried for burial into their own countries, are by the very act excommunicated. As there exists a certain abuse, which is characterized by the most abominable savagery, but which nevertheless some of the faithful have stupidly adopted. We, prompted by motives of humanity, have decreed that all further mangling of the human body, the very mention of which fills the soul with horror, should be henceforth abolished.
“The custom referred to is observed with regard to those who happen to be in any way distinguished by birth or position, who, when dying in foreign lands, have expressed a desire to be buried in their own country. The custom consists of disemboweling and dismembering the corpse, or chopping it into pieces and then boiling it so as to remove the flesh before sending the bones home to be buried–all from a distorted respect for the dead. Now, this is not only abominable in the sight of God, but extremely revolting under every human aspect. Wishing, therefore, as the duty of our office demands, to provide a remedy for this abuse, by which the custom, which is such an abomination, so inhuman and so impious, may be eradicated and no longer be practiced by anyone, We, by our apostolic authority, decree and ordain that no matter of what position or family or dignity they may be, no matter in what cities or lands or places in which the worship of the Catholic faith flourishes, the practice of this or any similar abuse with regard to the bodies of the dead should cease forever, no longer be observed, and that the hands of the faithful should not be stained by such barbarities.
“And in order that the bodies of the dead should not be thus impiously and barbarously treated and then transported to the places in which, while alive, they had selected to be buried, let them be given sepulture for the time either in the city or the camp or in the place where they have died, or in some neighboring place, so that, when finally their bodies have been reduced to ashes or otherwise, they may be brought to the place where they wish to be buried and there be interred. And, if the executor or executrix of the aforesaid defunct, or those of his household, or anyone else of whatever order, condition, state or grade he may be, even if he should be clothed with episcopal dignity, should presume to attempt anything against the tenor of this our statute and ordination, by inhumanly and barbarously treating the bodies of the dead, as we have described, let him know that by the very fact he incurs the sentence of excommunication, from which he cannot obtain absolution (unless at the moment of death), except from the Holy See. And besides, the body that has been thus barbarously treated shall be left without Christian burial. Let no one, therefore, etc. (Here follows the usual formula of condemnation for the violation of the prescriptions of a decree.) Given at the Lateran Palace, on the twelfth of the calends of March, in the sixth year of our pontificate.”
The reason for the bull is very well known. During the crusades, numbers of the nobility who died at a distance from their homes in infidel countries were prepared for transportation and burial in their own lands by dismemberment and boiling. The remains of Louis IX., of France, and a number of his relatives who perished on the ill-fated crusade in Egypt in 1270, are said to have been brought back to France in this fashion. The body of the famous German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who was drowned in the river Saleph near Jerusalem, was also treated thus in order that the remains might be transported to Germany without serious decomposition being allowed to disturb the ceremonials of subsequent obsequies. Such examples were very likely to be imitated by many. The custom, as can be appreciated from these instances from different nations, was becoming so widespread as to constitute a serious source of danger to health, and might easily have furnished occasion for the conveyance of disease. It is almost needless to say to our generation that it was eminently unhygienic. Any modern authority in sanitation would at once declare against it, and the custom would be put an end to without more ado. There can be no doubt at all then that Pope Boniface VIII. accomplished good, not evil, by the publication of this bull. So anyone with modern views as to the danger of disease from the foolish custom which it abolished would at once have declared, and yet, by a perversion of its signification, it came to be connected with a supposed prohibition of dissection. For this misunderstanding Pope Boniface VIII. has had to suffer all sorts of reproaches and the Church has been branded as opposed to anatomy by historians(!)
James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)