Rituals and Traditions Surrounding a Pope’s Death:
August is a hot month, even in the north country. But because we live in the 21st century, with the technology for air conditioning, and because we live in a northern climate, August is pretty easy to handle.
Suppose that we lived in a much warmer climate centuries ago. August would not be so fun. It’s because of the heat that August has more saints’ feast days than any other month. Saints’ feast days are most often celebrated on the day of their deaths, and since high heat was a leading cause of death in past centuries, August has many of our saints.
What is true of the saints is also true of the popes. More popes have died in August than in all the other months. So in the spirit of this hottest month, I am going to explain some of the rituals and traditions that surround the death of a pope. By no means is this exhaustive, but I will highlight some of the more interesting traditions, some of which are no longer in use.
Before modern medicine, it was not so easy to determine beyond a doubt if someone actually had passed on to his or her reward. History is rife with stories of people being buried before they actually had died. The last person you want to do that to is the pope. In the earliest years, the pope’s doctor would hold a lit candle up to the mouth and nose. If the flame flickered, he was still breathing. This non-scientific process gave way to one that has been around for centuries. When the pope is thought to have died, the papal chamberlain (the guy in charge after the pope’s death) takes a silver hammer made for the occasion and taps the pope’s head three times, all the while calling out the pope’s baptismal name with each hit. If the pope does not respond, the chamberlain turns to those in the room and ceremonially says, “The pope is truly dead” and immediately he falls to his knees and prays Psalm 130, the De Profundis, a penitential psalm.
After the psalm is recited, everyone present in order of rank kisses the hand of the dead pope. Then the chamberlain covers the face with a white veil and calls the priests who hear confessions in St. Peter’s to keep watch over the body.
The body is then bathed and dressed in pontifical garb. A red silk cloth is placed over the entire body, with only the right hand, wearing the Fisherman’s Ring, made visible in order to illustrate his authority.
After this, four large beeswax candles are placed at the corners of the bed, with a bucket of holy water at the foot of the bed so that visiting clergy can sprinkle the dead body.
All of this is done very soon after the death, before the body is shown for public viewing. Honestly I cannot say how much of this tradition was used upon the death of John Paul the Great in 2005, but it gets more certain when it comes to the more public aspects of the ritual surrounding the pope’s death, some of which I will explain now.
The chamberlain uses the same silver hammer that he tapped the pope’s head with to break the Fisherman’s Ring in order to illustrate that the pope’s authority has now come to an end. He then orders the bells of St. Peter’s to be rung to notify the public of the pope’s passing. Soon after this, the pope’s private apartments are sealed so that no one can enter them until the new pope is elected. The body is then transferred to St. Peter’s Basilica for the public viewing. Traditionally this has lasted three days.
When it comes time for the actual burial, the pope is placed in a cypress wood casket. That casket is then placed in a lead casket, which has his years of reign engraved on it. Then that casket is placed in a pine casket, so the pope actually gets buried in three caskets. Before they are sealed, the bishop who is in charge of the pope’s official proclamations reads a list of achievements of the pope, and then the parchment that lists the achievements is rolled into a copper tube and placed inside the casket. Along with the copper tube, three velvet bags containing the copper, silver and gold coins minted from each year of the pontificate are placed into the casket.
When each casket is closed, it is wrapped with two cords of violet silk and sealed in wax with the coat of arms of the chamberlain and the cardinal dean (who was Joseph Ratzinger for John Paul).
One last piece of interesting information concerning the pope’s death has something to do with a very small, non-descript church in Rome, Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio, which is kitty-corner, facing the Trevi Fountain. It was the parish church in the neighborhood of the Quirinal Palace, where the popes used to live. The crypt of this church has preserved the heart and lungs of the popes from 1585 to 1903. This was because of church law that specified that a Catholic was to be buried from his or her own parish church. Since the popes lived in that neighborhood, that was their official parish and so at least their innards followed the letter of the law!
All of these rituals have their own history, their own story as to why they developed. Much of it has been lost to history. Yet the history and ceremony surrounding the death of our popes adds to the beauty of our colorful past.