Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried at the cathedral of Frombork, northern Poland, along with many other priests and lay people whose bodies remained anonymous under the floor of this large Gothic building. Although an epitaph was placed at the church, information on the exact location of his tomb was either not recorded or it was lost.
For two centuries, Polish, French and German researchers tried in vain to identify Copernicus’ grave by excavating in several points of the marble floor of the church. Finally in 2005, Jerzy Gassowski, professor at the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology of Pultusk, north of Warsaw, discovered what seemed to be the burial place of the astronomer under the marble floor at the foot of one of sixteen altars located next to the towering pillars of the cathedral.
The skull and bones were entrusted to the police laboratory in Warsaw. Forensic experts made a virtual reconstruction of the man's face. The results showed striking similarities with existing portraits of Nicolas Copernicus. However, only DNA evidence could confirm the finding. Rest of tissue was found under teeth of the skull, but it was necessary to find genetic material to compare it with. The difficulty seemed insurmountable, because genealogy research was not successful.
A painstaking search ensued for several years until the precious genetic material required was finally found. Göran Henriksson, astronomer at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, searching in a book “Magnum Romanum Calendarium”
by Johannes Stoeffler, dated 1518, found several hairs inside the book. This is a manual that Copernicus had used during his life in Poland and was taken by the Swedes during the Polish-Swedish wars in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.
The DNA analysis done in laboratories in Sweden and Poland confirmed that two of the hairs matched the genome sequences of the tooth material from the skull found in Frombork.
Once identified, it was decided that the remains of the astronomer should be buried again in the Cathedral after stops at several churches and Gothic castles in the region of Warmia, which the astronomer traveled many times as a canon and ecclesiastical administrator. The remains arrived at Frombork in the middle of last week. Now the great astronomer, mathematician and physician rests under the main altar in a black granite tomb with a three meters high headstone.
Copernicus most famous work caused a major shift in the knowledge of astronomy in the seventeenth-century. At the time, it was widely accepted that Earth was the center of the Universe and everything else rotated around the planet. Following his observations, he wrote a book called De revolutionibus orbium coelestium
(On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres). The book was not published until shortly before his death because Copernicus was worried about the reception of the book by the Catholic Church. Sure enough, after the book was published and became well known, the work was condemned by the Catholic Church when a decree was issued suspending De revolutionibus
until it could be "corrected," on the grounds that the presumption that the Earth moves and the Sun does not, was "false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scriptures”.
On May 22, a funeral mass was officiated by the Pope's nuncio in Poland, Jozef Kowalczyk, and the archbishop of Lublin, Jozef Zycinski, at a ceremony in which the Catholic Church solemnly acknowledged a scientist who at the time was considered a heretic because of his revolutionary ideas.
For a short video of Copernicus' second funeral mass at Frombork Cathedral click here