Incorruptibility is a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that Godly intervention allows some human bodies (specifically saints and beati) to avoid the normal process of decomposition after death as a sign of their holiness. Bodies that undergo little or no decomposition, or delayed decomposition, are sometimes referred to as incorrupt or incorruptible.
In Roman Catholicism, if a body remains incorruptible after death, this is generally seen as a sign that the individual is a saint. Not every saint, however, is expected to have an incorruptible corpse. Although incorruptibility is recognized as supernatural, it is no longer counted as a miracle in the recognition of a saint.
Embalmed bodies were not recognized as incorruptibles. For example, while the body of Pope John XXIII remained in a remarkably intact state after its exhumation, Church officials remarked that the body had been embalmed and additionally there was a lack of oxygen in his sealed triple coffin.
Incorruptibility is seen as distinct from the good preservation of a body, or from mummification. Incorruptible bodies are often said to have the odour of sanctity, exuding a sweet or floral, pleasant aroma.
To the Eastern Orthodox Church, incorruptibility continues to be an important element for the process of glorification. An important distinction is made between natural mummification and what is believed to be supernatural incorruptibility. There are a great number of eastern Orthodox saints whose bodies have been found to be incorrupt and are in much veneration among the faithful. These include:
Saint Alexander of Svir — the incorrupt relics of the saint were removed from the Svir Monastery by the Bolsheviks on December 20, 1918, after several unsuccessful attempts to confiscate them. Finally, the holy relics were sent to Petrograd's Military Medical Academy. There they remained for nearly eighty years. A second uncovering of St Alexander's relics took place in December 1997, before their return to the Svir Monastery.
Saint Ioasaph of Belgorod — In 1918 the Bolsheviks removed Saint Ioasaph's relics from his shrine in the cathedral of the Holy Trinity at Belgorod, and for some seventy years, their whereabouts remained unknown. In 1927, the cathedral itself was demolished. In the late 1980s, the relics were discovered in Leningrad's Museum of Religion and Atheism, and on 16 September 1991, they were solemnly returned to the new Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Belgorod, in the presence of Patriarch Alexy II.
Saint John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco
The saints and other Christian holy men and women whose bodies are said to be or to have been incorrupt have been catalogued in The Incorruptibles: A Study of the Incorruption of the Bodies of Various Catholic Saints and Beati a 1977 book by Joan Carroll Cruz. Incorruptibles include:
The body of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes with wax face and hand coverings, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. January 7, 1844 – d. April 16, 1879).
The new recumbent statue (1987) of Saint Clare of Assisi, with the reliquary below. (b. July 16, 1194 – d. August 11, 1253).
The body of Saint John Mary Vianney wearing a wax mask, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. 8 May 1786 – d. 4 August 1859).
The body of Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina wearing a silicone mask, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. 25 May 1887 – d. 23 September 1968).
^Archived at The Incorruptibles, The bodies of many medieval Catholic saints and martyrs have resisted decay for centuries— just the sort of mystery that begs for scientific inquiry, By Heather Pringle, Discover Vol. 22 No. 6 (June 2001)