I am going to swipe a goodly part of Fr. Z’s post just because it’s so interesting. He begins my answering a question 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. When you compare a photo of her after death and prepared for burial, and a photo her now… well.
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.