Incorruptibility is a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that divine 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 is judged as incorruptible after death, this is most often seen as a sign that the individual is a saint. Canon law allows inspection of the body so that relics can be taken and sent to Rome. The relics must be sealed with wax and the body must be replaced after inspection. These ritual inspections are performed very rarely and can only be performed by a bishop according to the requirements of canon law. A pontifical commission can authorize inspection of the relics and demand a written report. After solemn inspection of the relics, it can be decided that the body is presented in an open reliquary and displayed for veneration. Catholic law allows saints to be buried under the altar, so Mass can be celebrated above the remains.
The remains of Bernadette Soubirous were inspected multiple times, and reports by the church tribunal confirmed that the body was preserved. The opening of the coffin was attended by multiple canons, the mayor and the bishop in 1919, and repeated in 1925. However, the face and hands were covered with a wax mask.
Not every saint, however, is expected to have an incorruptible corpse. Although believers see incorruptibility 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, although 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, a distinction is made between natural mummification and what is believed to be supernatural incorruptibility. While incorruptibility is not generally deemed to be a prerequisite for sainthood, there are many eastern Orthodox saints whose bodies have been found to be incorrupt and are in much veneration among the faithful. These include:
Rabbi Louis Ginzberg in his monumental "Legends of the Jews" (Vol. 4, Chapter 10) based on the Jewish apocrypha and aggadah mentions an alleged case of bodily incorruptibility of Biblical prophet Baruch (whose tomb is found in Iraq).
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.
The body of Saint Zita, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (born c. 1218 - d. 27 April 1272).
The body of Saint Rita of Cascia, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. 1381 - d. May 22, 1457).
The body of Saint Virginia Centurione, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. April 2, 1587 - d. December 15, 1651).
The body of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes with wax face and hand coverings, declared to appear incorrupt by a committee in 1909 (subsequent exhumations indicated corruption). (b. January 7, 1844 - d. April 16, 1879).
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 Catherine Labouré, found to be incorrupt by the Catholic Church. (b. May 2, 1806 - d. December 31, 1876).
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).