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

Il Papa

Briefly: Just happened to look at The New York Times site, and see reports there and elsewhere that the pope is near death. No surprise there — he’s been very sick for a long time. But still: The pope is dying. What’s odd is that, despite not having gone to Mass or taken any of the sacraments except on very rare occasions for nearly 40 years, I can be so quickly carried back to Catholic school days and the sense of gravity surrounding the death of a pope.

I’m thinking of Pope John XXIII (I can probably thank him for my early knowledge of Roman numerals) when I write that. He was a sort of kindly old guy who came after Pius XII, who was a cipher in my pre-school appreciation of matters ecclesiastical. I remember Mom liked J23, and thought he was doing good things in the church. I didn’t really understand what things he was doing, but there was the feeling he was a little looser and less formal than people were used to. The Wikipedia article on him has a great anecdote:

“When the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, arrived in the Vatican to see him, he began nervously rehearsing the two methods of address he had been advised to use when she entered: ‘Mrs. Kennedy, Madame’ or ‘Madame, Mrs. Kennedy’. When she did arrive, however, to the amusement of the press corps, he abandoned both and rushed to her saying, ‘Jackie!’

Then he died, in 1963, in the summer between third and fourth grade for me. In Chicago, Catholic as it is — or was then, anyway — it was a big deal, and I remember a big black headline on the Daily News, which has, like all the popes except one, expired, too.