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

3 Replies to “Papal Embalmment, the Sequel”

  1. Well, I’m happy I brought up the subject of John XXIII being so “sincerely” embalmed. But it didn’t make him look all that great. I was totally creeped out by the 2001 procession when he was beatified…beautified?…whatever. There is something that is just too macabre about parading a corpse around in public. The poor guy…this is how I now remember him. As a kid, he was this great hero, reformer of The Church. It really diminished him a bit (in my eyes) to put his remains on public display.
    However, if you do go to Italy, you will find they have a long tradition of displaying the bones, corpses and relics of the saints. And there are lots of them. The ones I found most interesting were the uncorrupted remains. I guess it is believed that these relics have been Divinely spared the wasting that nature imposes upon the flesh. The website you mentioned earlier this week has some examples of these. The “uncorrupted” relics I saw looked pretty bad. The head of St. Theresa(?) (I’m not sure about that) and the tongue of some other saint. These I saw in Siena in 1985. Both were in ornate reliquaries and were very,very old. Old Relics.
    I think there really is something to the Jewish and Islamic laws which stipulate that the dead go into the ground before sunset on the day following death. Personally, I think it shows some respect for the departed and spares kin the trauma of witnessing “nature’s work”. It also allows the living to focus more readily on the spiritual connection with the departed.

  2. On another related note. The crowds that have turned out for the Pope have been impressive and very moving as well.

  3. Hey, John:
    I’ve only watched a tiny bit of what’s been on TV. On the Vatican site on Wednesday, they had live video of the scene inside St. Peter’s Basilica. I was struck by the relative casualness of the proceedings. People were solemn, but they were also kind of matter of fact, many or most dressed informally, folks wearing backpacks, with kids on their shoulders. Just plain people. Kind of makes you see that there are millions out there, most of whom I have no conception of, who really do have a personal relationship to the church.
    I was thinking something similar when I watched a little of the Univision coverage, in Spanish, from Rome. “Juan Pablo Segundo.” I think of the Catholic Church in U.S. terms, but hell, the church is really the rest of the world, and John Paul was really something to so many of those people out there who are just an abstraction most of the time — the faithful.
    I also saw that scene in St. Peter’s and experienced a moment of, man, I’d really like to be there. For the event, partly; but more because it’s such a center of our consciousness of the world.
    — Dan

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