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

2 Replies to “John Paul Embalming Caper, Part IV”

  1. I like the part in the Slate story that refers to the funeral of Pius XI, the angry mob trying to toss his coffin into the Tiber.
    The Vatican keeps this going way too long. On the other hand it gives one the opportunity to consider one’s mortality. It was quite a sight, seeing the three presidents contemplating the departed pontiff. John Paul may be saying in death to all the Brahmins and nabobs that will crowd into St. Peter’s that this is what you have to look forward to and it wouldn’t hurt to show a little humility. Not a bad lesson.

  2. Just another reason why I love this blog: you do my work for me. Thanks for getting to the bottom of this issue.
    There’s a great book along the lines of your inquiry (minus the pope part) by Mary Roach called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. A must read for anyone who found compelling the question of whether or not the pope was embalmed. What makes this book great is not just its fearless exploration into the varied fates of cadavers, but also Roach’s writing style, which is often quite humorous.

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