For Catholics, few (if any) living human figures receive as much respect and admiration as a pope. The pope offers inspiration, guidance, and comfort to millions across the globe.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens Right After a Pope Dies?
- Papal Funeral Service Traditions
- Papal Burial Customs
- Most Recent Papal Funerals
Naturally, the Catholic Church treats a pope’s death in accordance with his power and leadership. Although papal funeral traditions and customs have changed somewhat throughout history, in general, the process of mourning a pope involves certain consistent rituals. Church officials have developed these rituals over centuries, ensuring they reflect Catholic beliefs about death and the afterlife.
The following guide describes some of the more noteworthy papal mourning, funeral, and burial traditions involved in the process. If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a pope dies, you’re sure to find these points interesting.
What Happens Right After a Pope Dies?
Confirming and announcing a pope has died involves several key steps and Church officials. This is partially because Church officials need to begin the process of preparing to select a new pope according to a strict timeline. Essential steps include:
Certifying the death
To confirm a pope has died, the camerlengo (a high-ranking Catholic official) calls a pope by their baptismal name three times. When the pope does not respond, the camerlengo authorizes the death certificate. They typically notify the cardinal vicar for the Diocese of Rome at this point.
It’s important to understand that these rituals don’t replace scientific techniques. Saying the pope’s name three times is a custom rooted in Catholic traditions. However, medical professionals also help the camerlengo confirm a pope is dead.
Sealing the apartment
The camerlengo (sometimes with other Church officials) locks and seals the papal apartment after officially certifying a pope’s death. They may also cut the telephone lines.
Sealing the apartment serves to guard against looting. The Church does not want key documents, such as the pope’s will, to fall into the wrong hands. The Church actually follows the same process for sealing a papal apartment when a pope resigns.
The official announcement
When the vicar of Rome receives the official word that the pope has died, they then inform the public.
The manner in which the vicar makes this announcement has naturally changed over time. For instance, when Pope John Paul II died, the Catholic Church actually used email and text messages to make an official announcement.
Papal Funeral Service Traditions
The papal funeral usually lasts for two or more hours. Historically, people throughout the world have traveled to Rome to see the event. Attendees often include major world leaders.
While the nature of papal funerals sometimes changes for various reasons (such as a pope making specific requests), the funeral usually involves these traditions:
The funeral mass
Before a pope’s burial, the dean of the College of Cardinals typically delivers a funeral mass. They begin by performing the introductory rites. Next, they often deliver Catholic funeral readings from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, always ending with a reading from one of the four Gospels. This is in many ways similar to an extended version of a traditional Catholic funeral service.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist marks the next stage in the papal funeral mass. The ceremony ends when mourners have received Holy Communion and the dean of the College of Cardinals has dismissed them with a blessing rite. After the dismissal, pallbearers begin transporting the pope’s coffin for burial.
It’s worth noting that not all papal funerals are exactly the same. Although they traditionally involve a funeral mass, specific details can and do vary on a case-by-case basis.
For example, in recent years, the Church has performed the papal funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square. These open-air ceremonies allow thousands of mourners to attend. However, in the past, the Church has traditionally conducted papal funerals inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Virtual funeral tip: You can incorporate the rites of a Catholic funeral into a virtual or hybrid funeral with a service like GatheringUs. Work together with your church and your virtual funeral planner to put the details together.
The mourning period
A pope’s funeral technically occurs during an extended mourning period. According to Catholic tradition, Catholics should officially mourn a pope for nine days after they receive last rites and pass.
Based on rules established in 1996, for unspecified “special reasons,” the funeral must take place between the fourth and sixth day following a pope’s death.
This official mourning period serves a few purposes. Partially, it establishes a timeline for preparing to select the next pope. It also gives mourners the opportunity to view the deceased pope before they are to be buried.
This was particularly important when papal funerals took place in St. Peter’s Basilica, which lacks the space to accommodate all those who might wish to pay their respects. The pope’s body typically lies in state for three days while mourners view it. The deaths of recent popes have attracted literally hundreds of thousands of mourners wishing to view their bodies.
Papal Burial Customs
Like papal funerals, papal burials aren’t all the same. That said, the Church has established certain customs throughout history to ensure they bury popes properly. Recent customs include:
The three caskets
Traditional papal burials involve entombing the pope in three caskets. The innermost, a cypress coffin, holds the pope’s body as well as a copy of the funeral mass eulogy. It also holds three bags of coins: one of silver coins, one of gold, and one of copper. The number of coins in each bag represents the number of years a pope served.
The next casket, made of lead, holds the cypress coffin. It bears an engraving of the pope’s name, along with the dates of his papacy. The final casket, made of elm, holds the other two. This is nailed shut before the burial occurs.
Three caskets, to some degree, symbolize core Catholic beliefs. For example, according to Cardinal Muller, the Church won’t cremate popes because “Belief in the resurrection of the flesh is fundamental,” adding “a human cadaver is not trash.” In other words, the three coffins are meant to protect the pope’s body. This ensures they might one day return to life with their body undisturbed.
The burial site
The traditional burial location for popes has changed over the years. For the past few centuries, most popes have specified they would like to be buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.
Once the funeral ends, the pallbearers carry the coffin (containing the other two) through the basilica’s “door of death.” A bell tolls once to mark the start of the burial process.
Pallbearers then lower the casket into a marble sarcophagus. A heavy stone slab covers the sarcophagus to protect the coffins.
Once again, keep in mind that this process does vary in some cases. Numerous popes from history are buried in other sites throughout Italy. Additionally, some popes are buried directly underground, while others are kept in above-ground tombs. That said, St. Peter’s Basilica is home to far more pope burial sites than anywhere else on the planet.
Most Recent Papal Funerals
Recent papal funerals illustrate how papal funeral and mourning traditions continue to evolve. To better understand these changes, consider the following major examples:
Pope John XXIII
Pope John XXIII passed at the age of 81 several months after receiving a stomach cancer diagnosis. In 1963, approximately 100,000 mourners filled St. Peter’s Square after attending a Mass offered for him.
Unlike future papal funerals, the official funeral for Pope John XXIII took place inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. Onlookers officially learned of the Pope’s death through an announcement made over the square’s loudspeakers.
Pope Paul VI
A heart attack claimed the life of Pope Paul VI at the age of 80. His funeral, held in St. Peter’s Square, broke with the Vatican tradition of papal funerals occurring inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. Foreign dignitaries and numerous other important figures joined thousands who watched silently during the two-hour funeral.
Pope John Paul I
Pope John Paul I died of a heart attack at age 65. Tens of thousands filled St. Peter’s Square, where his simple coffin rested, along with an open book of gospels and a white candle to symbolize eternal life. Onlookers applauded at twilight when the Mass concluded and pallbearers began transporting the coffin.
John Paul II
After developing septic shock, Pope John Paul II requested that medical professionals tend to him at his private residence in the Vatican. Many believed he knew he would soon pass. He had specified wanting to die in the Vatican and had recently been ill for several months.
Millions flocked to Rome to witness his funeral. During the Mass, his coffin sat on a carpet in front of the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica. Many chanted “Santo! Santo!” as pallbearers transported his coffin for the burial, urging the Church to make Pope John Paul II an immediate saint.
That Which Happens to All
Pope John XXIII hinted he would soon die when he told visitors, “That which happens to all men perhaps will happen soon to the Pope who speaks to you today.”
These words reflect an essential insight. Death is part of life. However, rituals and traditions can help us move on when death takes someone important. This is true whether that person was a pope or not.
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- “Funeral for a Pope.” Csun.edu, California State University Northridge, www.csun.edu/~vcspc00g/301/popefuneral-lat.pdf
- Koven, Ronald and Sari Gilbert. “Pope Buried in Open-Air Ceremony.” WashingtonPost.com, The Washington Post, 5 October 1978, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1978/10/05/pope-buried-in-open-air-ceremony/518919c9-ebc4-42da-a36a-1de646f3ebf2/
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- “Papal Burial Rituals.” CBN.com, The Christian Broadcasting Network Inc., www1.cbn.com/churchandministry/papal-burial-rituals
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- Woodman, Cindy. “Final resting place: Vatican releases instruction on burial, cremation.” Catholic News, Catholic News Service, 25 October 2016, www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/final-resting-place-vatican-releases-instruction-on-burial-cremation.cfm