The body was exhumed for the first time on Wednesday, September 22, 1909, 30 years after Bernadette’s death. The official records, which are kept in the Archives of Saint 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 wooden coffin was unscrewed and the lead coffin cut open to reveal the body of Bernadette in a state of PERFECT PRESERVATION. There was not the slightest trace of an unpleasant smell. The Sisters who had buried her thirty 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 shrivelled 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 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.
Bernadette’s body was placed it in a new coffin padded with white silk. The workmen once again bore Bernadette's body.
"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.
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.
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.
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 shrivelled, seems to have suffered from the effects of the damp in the coffin.
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 soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon. "