ASK FATHER: Incorrupt bodies of saints

From a reader…


Hi Father, is it important for a saints body to be incorrupt after death? Does it confirm the person was holy and what does it say about the saints whose bodies are not incorrupt? Thanks!

Well, the fact that the body of a saint is incorrupt is certainly important, but it is not obligatory for the saint’s cause or our veneration.   It can, however, be a powerful sign of the sanctity of the person and that they are probably in heaven.

Just as certain gifts and graces are given to people while alive, so too certain gifts are also given after death, even to their earthly bodies.  Such is the case with the incorrupt bodies of some saints.

I have in mind the bodies of a couple of saints, St. John Vianney and St. Bernadette Soubirous.  The former died in 1859 and the later in 1879.  Their bodies are miraculously preserved and seem as if they are asleep.

This is especially the case with St. Bernadette.  At the time when her cause for beatification and canonization was being explored, as a necessary part of the process her body was exhumed – in fact several times over the years – so that it could be examined (remember, these causes are like court cases and habeas corpus!) and so that relics could be collected.  The ground in which she had been buried was extremely damp and her habit had pretty much rotted away, but she was untouched by corruption except in some patch of skin where salts had concentrated.  The links of the rosary she was buried with were entirely gone from rusting and the glass beads were around her.  A prominent atheist was asked to do an examination of the body.  When he opened her abdomen, he found incorrupt skeleton and organs.  He converted to Catholicism.  That is, of course, one of the signs of the holiness of saints: they bring about conversions.  Bernadette was reclothed in a habit and her body placed on display in the convent church in Nevers.

The fact of her incorrupt body, inexplicable by science, was considered miraculous and contributed evidence for her cause.  However, that, in itself, was not the deciding factor.

In October Bl. John Henry Newman will be canonized.  He, too, was buried in very damp ground and, when his grave was opened for examination, it was found that his body was simply gone, eroded away.  However, even though they didn’t have his body, his cause moved forward.

So, an incorrupt body is a spectacular sign, but it is not the only or decisive factor in the cause of canonization.

When it comes to the bodies of saints and their relics, I warmly recommend the ministry of my friend Fr. Carlos Martins, Treasures of the Church.  He has an exposition of some 150 relics which he can bring to a parish for display, instruction, and veneration.  He was involved with the project to bring the body of St. Mary Goretti to these USA.  One of the places where she visited was here in Madison at a parish named in her honor.  His exposition of relics has been very helpful for many to understand the important of these true treasures and they have been of spiritual benefit.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Patrick71 says:

    I have difficulty with incorrupt saints. They always look like wax dummies to me. I’m not convinced they’re real. Thankfully I’m not required to believe they are.

  2. supercooper says:

    I can sympathize with Patrick 71. I believe in the incorruptible saints, including St. Bernadette, based on the conversion of the atheist mentioned in the post. But why would the Church authorities then allow her face to be waxed? When I was at her tomb we were told this was done because of slight discoloration, and it certainly appears that way.

    I would rather her body be preserved miraculously for a remarkable period of time, and allowed to degrade eventually if it was God’s will.

  3. Father Z:

    Thanks for this encouraging story; I shared a portion of it (with credit to you) in my upcoming parish bulletin.

  4. teomatteo says:

    The closest i have come to an incorruptible that wasnt designated as such was some years ago. I was scuba diving on a shipwreck in Lake Superior (Isle Royale) and there was a body still in the engine room from its sinking in the 1920’s (as i remember). Waxy. Preserved but not incorruptible. I was told that the remains have since been buried ‘at sea’ properly. Thank goodness.

  5. dbonneville says:

    The second image shows wax hands and wax face mask.

  6. L. says:

    My understanding was that while bodies of some Saints are incorrupt they’re not indestructible. While their bodies may not decompose, they will dry out and perhaps become discolored. For this reason, wax masks are often made to cover the faces of the bodies, as “the internet” says was done for the bodies of St. John Vianney and St. Bernadette Soubirous.

    [You’ve made a good distinction. Put corrosive materials on our flesh and damage will be done.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  7. TonyO says:

    It is also interesting that the “incorrupt” bodies of saints seem to have a sort of relative “life expectancy”, if we can use that phrase. That is, over the whole range of them (there are over 250 claimed cases) they seem to deteriorate over time, so that very few are still recognizable at all after 600 years. Most are considerably younger than that. And parts of them deteriorate while other parts do not. It’s not nearly as cut and dried a system of miracles as one might wish for.

    But it is still amazing and unexplainable to ordinary science. When you have a saint buried in damp ground and the metal links of a rosary are simply gone, but the body is intact, this is surely indicative.

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    I find the incorruptibles very compelling. Even if not in perfect condition, the difference between their bodies and what should be expected given the conditions is miraculous. I don’t think they were usually embalmed in any sense and that alone must make quite a difference, yet there they are, pretty much intact. They were often buried in basic coffins, pine boxes, etc., and the ground was often wet, as if St. Bernadette’s case. Water is a most destructive element and a body in moist conditions over years, yikes. I too wish the church would not put wax over the bodies. If it were to be unpleasant, then they should be buried out of respect to them.

  9. Hugh9 says:

    There is a book available “The Incorruptibles” by Joan Carroll Cruz which describes the phenomena of incorrupt bodies of Saints. YouTube has some videos of allegedly incorrupt Saints but many are statues (such as St. John Bosco or St. Frances Cabrini) where the bones are conserved inside the reclining statue. Wax was used to lightly cover the face and hands of St. Bernadette. After her exhumation, the sisters washed the body and re-clothed it for display and veneration. The actions of the sisters caused the skin to discolor. Some faces of Saints are covered with a silver mask: Pope St. Pius X, St. John Southwell and others. In many cases the body is conserved but dries out and becomes mummified.

  10. Mike says:

    My son told me that Newman specifically requested a certain type of moldy dirt be put into his grave so he could “unto dust return”. I’ll try to find the source of this claim as soon as he wakes up. ?

  11. Pius Admirabilis says:

    There are incorrupt bodies of people who were not Saints, and never even were baptized.

    One famous example is the Prince Bishop Dietrich (Theodor) von Fürstenberg, Bishop and Lord of Paderborn, Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. When his sarcophagus was opened almost 400 years after his death, his body was found incorrupt. This was due to special herbs on which his body was placed. He is not a Saint and will hardly ever be canonized. I personally admire him as the defender of Faith he was (he fought against the Protestant Revolution and helped keeping Westfalia Catholic).

    But if incorruptibility was a sign for holiness, then we’d have to canonize a great many of Buddhist monks as well.

  12. Father G says:

    There is film footage of the incorrupt body of Saint Charbel Makhl?f being removed from his coffin when the tomb was opened in 1950. His body is almost skeletal and there is no hair on the head, but the body is shown to be flexible. His body was revested and people are shown kissing his hand.
    Film footage :
    The footage (in better quality) was edited into a movie on the life of Saint Charbel, beginning at minute 2:05 :

  13. Mike says:

    Ker’s Bio on Blessed Newman.

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