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Relics and Mummies


My daughter has pointed out to me that the incorrupt bodies of Saints are not unlike mummies or the unembalmed remains of certain Indians and other native peoples that are many years old. The embalmed mummies can be explained. But why do we argue that incorrupt relics are a sign of sanctity? I have seen relics that were in a state of near total incorruption—something not observed in other remains—, but this does not answer the questions of those without such experience. (Dr. E.Z., CA)

The bodies of the dead can be preserved by embalming, by certain chemicals in the soil, and by the effects of extremely cold or arid conditions. No one denies this. And such rare instances—and we must emphasize that bodies which do not dissolve after death are a rare exception—present no challenge to our veneration of the relics of Saints. The Christian veneration of relics, whether these be in the form of bone fragments or whole bodies, stems from our belief that Grace not only changes and transforms the soul, but the physical substance of the human body as well. Thus, many Saints’ relics exude a special fragrance which evokes a sense of spiritual beauty—a fragrance sometimes strong and at other times weak. Other relics elicit a sense of awe and spiritual peace. These qualities attest to the eternal and encompassing effects of holiness and to a spiritual presence that survives death and manifests itself even in the remnants of a Saint’s physical body.

Now, whereas we may or may not know why the mummified bodies that archaeologists study have not disintegrated, we certainly do know why the incorrupt relics of the Saints have not. We can draw a parallel between the sanctity of these Saints and the incorruptibility of their bodies; indeed, we Orthodox believe that there is a  direct correlation between the sanctity of the Saints’ lives and the state of their bones or bodies after death. Other incorrupt remains are of no interest to us, just as Christianity is ultimately unconcerned with the adventitious virtue that one sometimes sees in worldly people, but with the specific virtue formed by the Christian life in those who have overcome and cured sin by spiritual exercise and submission to the Will of God.

For centuries, and in monasteries especially, it has been observed by the Church that often only one or two bodies, among many buried in the same place, remain incorrupt. This would have no meaning, were it not for the fact that, through such long-term empirical observation, it has also been ascertained that these incorrupt bodies, as well as skeletal remains bearing a certain color or fragrance, are almost always those of individuals who lived exceedingly and exceptionally virtuous lives. The supernatural phenomenon which we acknowledge, then, is not the incorruptibility or exceptional quality of remains as such, but the virtuous lives to which these attributes attest. Likewise, when we venerate relics, we are not venerating the miracle of bodies that do not decay (indeed, there are instances in Church history where the bodies of corrupt people have remained whole after death); rather, we approach relics, whatever their state of incorruption, out of awe for the virtues that once adorned these precious remnants of the human body. Relics, like Icons, are, of course, Grace-bestowing; but ultimately they serve to lift us up and beyond their material form to the Saints who bequeathed them to the Church. Their final reality is understood only by those who attain to this communion with the Saints, which is ultimately communion with Christ Himself, to Whom the Saints have been joined and Whose majesty and power they reflect.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XII, No. 4, pp. 35-36.