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

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

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.”