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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Preparing a pontiff for the grave
By Clare Murphy
BBC News

The call never came for Massimo Signoracci, whose family has embalmed the last three popes.

Mourners at the grave of John Paul I
The Pope will rest next to his predecessor, John Paul I
Days after his death, the body of John Paul II lies serenely in St Peter's Basilica while throngs of people file past him.

But he has not been embalmed, according to the Vatican, which has insisted, rather elusively, that the body has merely been "prepared".

There is speculation that the pontiff's skin has at the very least been treated with a disinfectant, and the plinth on which he lies is cooled to slow down the process of decay.

Vatican officials may be understandably sensitive about embalming the Pope.

Paul VI underwent such treatment on his death in 1978, but he started to decompose rather more quickly than anticipated, while the speedy embalming of his immediate successor, John Paul I, ended up fuelling speculation that his death, just 33 days after his election, was not the result of natural causes.

John XXIII's body, however, was in such good condition when it was exhumed nearly 40 years after his death that some spoke of divine intervention - a notion quickly dismissed by the Vatican.

In 2001, he was placed on display in a glass coffin in St Peter's, during a mass conducted by Pope John Paul II.

The space the older pope vacated in the crypt beneath the basilica will soon be occupied by the younger man who oversaw that very mass.

Three coffin ritual

In accordance with tradition, the Pope's body, dressed in liturgical vestments, will be transferred into the first of three coffins during Thursday night, ahead of the funeral on Friday.

Catholics pay respects to Pope John XXIII
The embalmed body of John XXIII was in excellent condition when it was exhumed

The first coffin is a simple affair made of cypress wood, intended to symbolise the Pope's humility.

The Pope's closest aides will have placed a white silk cloth on his face and his white mitre on his chest as they spoke a special prayer .

He will also be accompanied by a red pouch containing coins and commemorative medals minted during his pontificate and a brief summary - in Latin - of his life.

The Vatican has meanwhile apparently received a large number of requests for items to be placed inside the coffin, including a handful of soil from his native Poland.

It remains unclear whether this wish will be granted, but any suggestion that the Pope's heart could be removed and buried in his homeland appears out of the question.

Organs have not been removed from popes since the practice was abolished by Pius X nearly 100 years ago, although before then it was commonplace.

Parts of pontiffs ranging from Sixtus V, who died in 1590, to Leo XIII, who died in 1903, are kept in Rome's St Anastasio and Vincent Church.

Finally to rest

Pope John Paul II's cypress coffin, with whatever contents are ultimately agreed upon, will be placed on the stone steps of the basilica as the funeral mass takes place on Friday.

Then it will be moved inside the church, and placed in the second coffin - this one made of zinc, and engraved with his name and the dates of his pontificate.

After it is hermetically sealed, a process which slows down decomposition, the two coffins will be placed inside an oak box.

This will then be interred beneath a marble slab in the Vatican grottos, a low-ceilinged warren which lies between the new basilica, built in the 16th Century, and the older Constantine church.

Numerous popes are buried here, and John Paul II will rest alongside John Paul I, and popes Benedict XV, Innocent IX, Julius III and Paul VI. The site where the first pope, Saint Peter, is believed to have been buried is also nearby.

But the Pope will not have just former pontiffs as neighbours. Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated in 1655 after she converted to Catholicism, will not be far away.


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