In truth, not all of the saints’ relics are incorruptible. Uncorrupted remains of the body are one out of many criteria for canonisation as a saint, but not the main one.
The remains of some saints, such as Saint Spyridon of Trymythus or the Holy Venerable Job of Pochaev, have not corrupted, which make them all the more remarkable among the other saints. The bodies of many others are also uncorrupted. However, the bodies of many other saints are only partially uncorrupted, or have preserved only as fragments of bones, Yet, as we have said, uncorrupted remains is not the only, and not even a leading sign of sanctity. Sainthood does not depend on the condition of one’s body after death.
It would be fully inappropriate to call incorruptible the remains of every saint simply because they are considered relics. The Church has never done so and has no such practice today. The remains of all saints are considered holy. But only those that have not decomposed after death can be called incorruptible. By extension, we may describe as incorruptible the remains of the saints that have been only partially liable to decomposition, such as the relics of the Holy Venerable Alexander Svirsky. But this is about as far as we can go.
I anticipate the question: Why have the bodies of some remained uncorrupted, while the bodies of others have decayed to the bone? Let me explain. Sainthood is acquired by faith, repentance and life according to the Gospel. However, it is impossible to achieve sainthood by human effort because it is always a gift of God. It is a gift that He bestows on a person as an individual. All the other gifts from God which we associate with sainthood in our minds are not individual. They are gifts like foresightedness, eldership, or healing given for the benefit of others, and we experience these benefits in our conversations with these righteous people. The lives of many saints from the past centuries have numerous accounts of miraculous healings of the incurably ill, or wondrous premonitions that kept many from wrong decisions and their potentially tragic consequences, and prayerful intercessions in some of the most difficult circumstances. God gives the saints the gifts of His grace for the sake of all those whom they would heal, enlighten or bring to repent. Incorrupt remains are also like a gift from God. People come to honour them, repent, strengthen their faith or find healing, as they do by venerating the relics of the saints of the Kiev-Pechery Lavra. But let us imagine a saint who had spend half his life ascetising in a desert and died there, or was slain during mass persecution of Christians somewhere in the Muslim middle east. Some may have asked not to pay last respects to their bodies or lived in an area with no tradition venerating relics. In the 1st to 4th centuries AD, this practice was far from universal. Had the body of such a saint remained uncorrupted, would it have made any sense? Would it have been a benefit to anyone? Honestly, I do not know how an uncorrupted body – seen as an end in itself – would have made any difference.
Unexpectedly, another negative influence on the state of the saints’ relics has been the zeal of the believers. Invariably, the members of the Church have always treated them with great piety, to the detriment of their integrity. Many have been taken apart, particle after particle. There were times in church history when interest in the relics was intense and universal. Imagine how many uncorrupted bodies of the saints have not preserved to this day because of the popularity of the saint. Do not get me wrong – I have no objections to taking particles of the relics of a saint. In many cases, it is a necessity. They are essential to sanctify an altar or an antimins. But practices have varied over time. Today, they are much more cautious and conservative than they were in the eighth or twelfth centuries when particles as large as a phalanx could be taken. Again, while the incorruptibility of the body has great significance, but the meaning of the integrity of a single phalanx is less clear.
At this point, I believe we have exhausted the topic of our discussion. Let us summarise by saying that while not all relics of the saints are incorruptible, all are holy. Yet we should treat all relics with equal piety and respect, an uncorrupted body in a reliquary or a tiny particle on the surface of an icon.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds