Science can’t explain it. Religion can.
In the Russian and Catholic churches, as well as in Buddhism, it is believed that if a body does not decay after death, it is a sign of holiness.
Though it seems unbelievable, photographic evidence exists of bodies that have remained intact for decades or even centuries. This should not be confused with bodies that were preserved either by deliberate embalming practices (such as Egyptian mummies) or by specific environmental factors. The incorruptible bodies of people who led pure and holy lives defy the laws of nature.
Some of these bodies are often found to be still flexible, warm or accompanied by a sweet fragrance years. In Russian practice, such physical remains are called relics. Incorruptibility is one of the clearest indicators of sainthood and one of the most tangible examples of what believers would call a miracle.
Where modern science fails to explain why these bodies did not disintegrate, the mystical, religious world can offer explanations. One is that these holy people were so filled with divine energy, that it warded off decay even after death. To Christians, who believe in the spiritual world, this explanation makes complete sense.
Not all saints bodies are incorrupt in the same way.
Some saints bodies, like St. Alexander of Svir, a saint who was born in 1448, continue to look almost the same as when they were buried.
Others remain intact, but darken and shrivel over time. For example, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco’s relics were found to be intact but turned to dark amber after they were washed.
Still other relics are incorrupt in some specific areas of the body. For example, the skull of St John of Chrysostom, an Orthodox saint who lived in the 4th century, while fully bone, still contains an ear that is completely intact. Often, the limbs that remain uncorrupt are symbolic. For example, it is believed that St John’s ear remained because the Angel of the Lord whispered into his year while was writing his spiritual works.
Believers often travel to venerate relics.
The typical Russian practice of 'venerating' a relic or icon is to cross oneself and kiss the glass covering while praying. Venerating relics offers a moment of intimate connection with a beloved saint. As when we treasure items that belonged to someone we loved, Russian Orthodox Christians believe that by venerating relics they offer respect and love in a tangible to someone they love and trust and who, though dead, can still hear their prayers.
Here’s an example from recent times.
Archbishop Dmitry of Dallas died in 2011 and his relics were found incorrupt in March 2016. Archimandrite Luke, who was present at the discovery of Archbishop Dmitry’s relics, said the body was found in a damp and musty place. A local specialist who was hired for the exhumation process was absolutely shocked when he saw the relics, since he knew that the particular area where Archbishop Dmitry had been buried was most conducive to decay.
Here's Rob Dreher's article on the topic:
"Above is an image taken today of the incorrupt body of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. He died in the summer of 2011 and was buried unembalmed, according to Orthodox tradition. On Friday his body was disinterred for transferral to his new tomb in St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas, which was his own. When the cemetery personnel opened his coffin, they found Vladyka Dmitri incorrupt.
That is to say, his body had not decayed. He has been buried for four and a half years under the Texas ground, and his body looks like it did the day he died.
This is a miracle. In Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity, it is seen as a sign that the deceased was, and is, a saint. If you read The Brothers Karamazov, you may remember that whether or not the deceased Elder Zosima was incorruptible was a feature of the narrative.
In Dallas today, they found their incorruptible. I don’t suppose a soul who knew Vladyka Dmitri is surprised. I knew him in the last five years of his life. What a dear and holy man he was. He had an important part in my own coming to Orthodoxy. In the summer of 2005, broken and grieving over years of scandal and corruption in the Catholic Church, my wife and I began attending St. Seraphim Cathedral. We did not intend to convert to Orthodoxy; we simply wanted to be in a place where we could be confident the real presence of Christ was in the Eucharist (Catholic doctrine recognizes the validity of Orthodox sacraments), the liturgy was reverent and beautiful, and we could worship without being so overwhelmed by anger.
After a couple of visits, we received an invitation to a party at the Archbishop’s house, after the Dormition feast. I felt divided about this. For one, I didn’t want to go to a fancy archbishop’s house. For another, I had had enough of bishops and archbishops, men who had wrecked the Catholic Church. I didn’t want to get mixed up with an Orthodox one.
But we went anyway, showing up on a rainy August afternoon at the address on the card. It turned out to be not a palatial residence, but the modest two-story woodframe house behind the cathedral. Could this house, with the paint peeling, really be where the Archbishop of Dallas and the South lives? I knocked on the door, and in we walked, with our kids.
The house was jammed with people from the congregation. There were Russians and other Slavs, and Americans too. You could hardly move for all the people. Every inch of counter space in the kitchen was filled with dishes bearing up Russian food. At the far end of one counter was a gorgeous flan, made by Vladyka Dmitri himself. He loved to cook.
There he was, sitting at the table, his long, Gandalf beard resting on his black cassock. His eyes twinkled. He greeted us kindly. Later, we watched him remove himself to a side room where kids were playing, sit down on a low couch, and talk to them like they were his own children. He was 82 years old then, and was to those children a kindly grandfather figure.
“Come see this,” Julie said, pointing to Dmitri among the children. That’s not something we were used to seeing.
A short while later, in the kitchen, a Russian and a Ukrainian poured vodka shots for themselves and for me, and raised a toast to the Archbishop. “To Vladyka!” we said, then downed the vodka. Meanwhile, the ceiling began to leak in the poor old house. We chose to ignore it, because it was time to bless the food. Everybody became quiet as Vladyka turned toward the icon and began to pray.
It was a family dinner. That’s how it struck us. Archbishop Dmitri, born Robert Royster in Teague, Texas, was the opposite of everything I had come to expect in a bishop. He was humble and kind and gentle. He loved his people, and his people loved him. I remember thinking how good it would be to be led by such a man.
One day a few years later, after had become Orthodox, we were at Forgiveness Vespers, the pre-Lenten ritual that all Orthodox parishes do in which each parishioner must ask each other for forgiveness, and then offer it in return. Watching that tall, elderly archbishop bow before our three year old daughter Nora and ask her forgiveness — it took my breath away.
Nora did not know it at the time, but it was a saint of God who did her that honor.
Here’s what will happen today in Dallas:
On Saturday morning, March 5th, 2016 His Beatitude, Metropolitan TIKHON, will preside at the Divine Liturgy in St Seraphim Cathedral at 9:30 AM. Following the Divine Liturgy a Pannikhida will be served, after which we will solemnly process around the cathedral carrying the coffin of Archbishop Dmitri and place it over the prepared crypt in the Memorial Chapel. After the final litany, we will lower the coffin containing the body of Archbishop Dmitri into his final earthly resting place.
A saint. Our Vladyka. What a gift.
UPDATE: A couple of readers rightly correct me for giving the impression that in Orthodoxy, an incorrupt body is incontrovertible evidence of sainthood. It is not. I am personally choosing to take this as a definitive sign, because I knew Vladyka Dmitri. But doing so is not the way of the Orthodox Church. If he is to be canonized, that will be something for the Church to decide, after much discernment."