On the Bike

Yesterday was, well, yesterday. And today was today, and I was out pedaling my bike through the Santa Cruz Mountains all day instead of sitting here posting. Which merits more details — a gorgeous and challenging day — but frankly I have to gather my wits about me first and get some shuteye, too. More later.

John Paul Embalming Caper, Part IV

With Pope John Paul II’s funeral about to begin, here’s one last — I promise — return to the subject of how his body has been handled since he died last Saturday. The Los Angeles Times on Thursday sorted through the conflicting reports about how the papal remains were prepared for viewing and came up with a pretty convincing, if not intricate or exact, account of what’s happened.

Reporter Laura King recounts how a professor of forensic medicine was assigned to handle John Paul’s body. And from the few facts and informed speculation available — the professor says he is sworn to secrecy about the details — it sounds like the pope was semi-embalmed. Further, his body has been getting nightly cosmetic touch-ups.

“During the three days that the body has been on view, St. Peter’s has closed from 2 to 5 a.m. The Vatican has said the hiatus is for maintenance inside the basilica, but a prominent specialist said it was likely that a formaldehyde solution was re-injected during that time, and cosmetics applied to conceal what by now would be apparent signs of decay.

” ‘Even with treatment, after this length of time, there would be the beginning of blackening of the skin, and “weeping” of the eyes,’ said Vincenzo Pascali, director of forensic medicine at Rome’s Catholic University.”

Also worthy of note in the Papal Embalmment Watch is Slate’s “Explainer” column, which doesn’t purport to say how the pope’s process was handled but instead focuses on how nature has its way with us after we die.

Slate: Why Didn’t They Embalm the Pope?

Los Angeles Times:
An Alternative to Embalming for the Pontiff

Iraq by the Numbers

The Iraq Coalition Casualties Web site offers a glimpse at a dimension of the human toll often missing from U.S. reporting on the war. For last month, the site’s operators compiled all the stray day-in, day-out reports of violence around Iraq and tallied casualties among Iraqi civilians and members of the Iraqi security forces. As the site cautions, it’s not a complete list, just what folks could scrape together from a careful reading of daily news wires.

The toll reported for March was 440, including 240 civilians and 200 military. The compilation continues this month.

Papal Embalmment, the Sequel

Do we want to know whether Pope John Paul II was embalmed? We do. The Infospigot Papal Interregnum Information Clearinghouse is under siege this morning today with dozens hundreds of visitors seeking the facts. So here, as precisely as they can be ascertained from a distance of 6,260 miles, they are:

The authoritative word from the Vatican is that Pope John Paul II has not been embalmed. Instead, according to a pretty good rundown from the BBC, the church is saying the body has been “prepared.” But there’s a mystery about the nature and extent of the preparation. The BBC story cites speculation that the bier upon which the pope lies is being cooled (get your ice-cold bier here) to slow the body’s decomposition. The Associated Press reports Massimi Signoracci, a Roman mortician whose family has handled past popes, as saying some type of embalmment would be necessary for a body on display as long as John Paul’s has been. Reuters’ story, which sheds no more light on what was or wasn’t done, picks up a good quote from Cardinal Francis George of Chicago:

“You see him, you see the body, and in Italy they don’t embalm in the same way we do, so you see the face of death more clearly,” Cardinal Francis George was quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun Times. “The person who is there looks like a dead person, and that’s good, that’s the reality of our future, but it’s not the last word.”

BBC: Preparing a Pontiff for the Grave

Reuters: Vatican Not Afraid to Show Pope’s Face of Death

San Francisco Chronicle (AP): Vatican: John Paul II Was Not Embalmed

Embalming the Pope

In further search of the truth about papal embalming practices, I found what appears to be a nice feature story Reuters did in 2001, when Pope John XXIII was disinterred to be put on public display. The story says that the pope himself directed that he be embalmed, and the job fell to a young doctor named Gennaro Goglia:

“… Goglia, now 78, still vividly recalls how a Vatican car picked him up at home on the night of June 3, 1963, hours after Pope John died of stomach cancer. Goglia, then a specialist in anatomy at Rome’s Catholic University, did not even tell his family where he was going.

“Before John died he entrusted a custodian to see to his funeral. John recalled that the body of his predecessor Pius XII was preserved so badly in 1958 that the four men standing guard in the Vatican had to be changed every 15 minutes because they could not stand the stench. The custodian, also a doctor, got in touch with Goglia. After they arrived, Goglia and others were taken by private elevator to the papal apartments in the apostolic palace. They had to wait about an hour while Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu made a bronze death mask.

” ‘Manzu walked out and we walked in,’ Goglia said.”

The best line in the story: “Yes, it was just a body,” (Goglia said). “It didn’t have to go to a beauty contest but it was the body of the pope.”

Search of the Day

What with all of the pictures of the deceased pope being carried through St. Peter’s Square, a lot of people seem to want to know whether he was embalmed or not before being displayed publicly. I count nine people coming to the renowned Infospigot Papal Information Clearinghouse through Google searches looking for information on whether the pope was embalmed; before you scoff, that’s a hefty 16 percent of the site’s visits on a non-banner Monday.

The answer is: I don’t know for sure. I mean, I have not found a story anywhere that says definitively that John Paul II was embalmed. However, lots of stories refer to his embalmed body being borne through the square on Monday. So I’m guessing he was embalmed.

Interesting to note that the Universi Dominici Gregis — the rules of succession that John Paul promulgated in 1996 — don’t mention embalmment, but do set out some specific rules limiting the kinds of pictures that can be taken of the pope’s body after he’s died:

“No one is permitted to use any means whatsoever in order to photograph or film the Supreme Pontiff either on his sickbed or after death, or to record his words for subsequent reproduction. If after the Pope’s death anyone should wish to take photographs of him for documentary purposes, he must ask permission from the Cardinal Camerlengo of Holy Roman Church, who will not however permit the taking of photographs of the Supreme Pontiff except attired in pontifical vestments.”

The Vatican’s site is worth checking out, for its orthodox weirdness if not for the oddness of Medieval Europe brushing elbows with the postmodern world. (Most of the news on the site has yet to be translated from Italian. So the official announcement of the pope’s cause of death refers to the primary causes — “shock settico” and “collasso cardiocircolatorio irreversibile” (which I take to be septic shock and irreversible cardiocirculatory collapse) — and several secondary causes:

“–Morbo di Parkinson

–Pregressi episodi di insufficienza respiratoria acuta e conseguente tracheotomia

–Ipertrofia prostatica benigna complicata da urosepsi

–Cardiopatia ipertensiva ed ischemica.”

‘Viva il Papa’

The New York Times’s coverage of the pope’s death features an obituary by Robert D. McFadden. To call it an obituary is somewhat misleading. It’s a mini-biography that takes up most of an eight-page special section in the paper and 21 pages online. McFadden is what I would call a rewrite man extraordinaire. He works nearly exclusively in the newsroom and writes stories based on his own reporting and research, almost always on deadline, sometimes wrapping in contributions from others. His command of the rewrite craft — his ability to assemble and marshal the important facts in a story, his ability to convey a sense of scenes and personalities he’s never witnessed or encountered directly, the lucidity of his prose, his speed and encyclopedic general knowledge — means he gets to write some of the biggest stories. He’s so good with them that he won the Pulitzer Prize one year — not for any particular story, but for what he did day in and day out to create sound, well-reported, and readable stories. Although I’ve never met McFadden and don’t know exactly how the Times newsroom works, I’m confident of all of the above because we had our own extraordinary rewrite guy at The Examiner when I was there, Larry D. Hatfield, who would bail the desk out on deadline nearly every day. But that’s another story.

Back to the John Paul II piece in today’s paper. Here’s how it starts:

“On the night of Oct. 16, 1978, a vast, impatient throng in floodlit St. Peter’s Square cheered wildly as white smoke curled from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. A long wait had ended, but the enthusiasm was somewhat premature.

“Cardinal Pericle Felici emerged minutes later to introduce Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, the first non-Italian pope since 1523. But even he had trouble pronouncing the name – voy-TEE-wah. Hardly anyone, it seemed, knew who he was. Murmurs and questions rippled through the predominantly Roman crowd.

“Then a powerfully built man with slightly stooped shoulders and a small smile on his angular face stepped onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Cheers faded into silence. The crowd waited.

“He stood at the balcony rail, looking out, a Polish stranger in the fresh white robes of the pope. And there were tears in his eyes as he began to speak.

” ‘I have come,’ he said in lightly accented Italian, ‘from a faraway country – far away, but always so close in the communion of faith.’

“There were scattered cheers, and they grew louder as he went on.

” ‘I do not know whether I can express myself in your – in our – Italian language,’ he said, pausing.

“The crowd roared appreciatively, and the laughter swelled into resounding cheers.

” ‘If I make mistakes,’ he added, beaming suddenly, ‘you will correct me.’

“Tumult erupted.

“The cheers went on and on, and then grew into rhythmic waves that broke on the basilica facade and echoed across the square in a thundering crescendo:

” ‘Viva il Papa!’ Viva il Papa! Viva il Papa!’ ”

That’s enough to make me want to read the whole thing.


Today is all about Charlemagne, Casanova, Buddy Ebsen, Jack Webb, Marvin Gaye, Leon Russell, Linda Hunt, Emmylou Harris. And the University of Illinois making it to the national championship game. And me, of course.