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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
Snapping the dead pope on a camera phone
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Mourners in St Peter's
Vatican rules do not outlaw pictures
They have come to pay their final respects, so is taking a mobile phone picture of the Pope's body disrespectful or just a sign of how times changed during his 26-year papacy?

To some it is distasteful, inappropriate and plain disrespectful. To others it is recording an historic moment to share with those who cannot be there.

With mobile phones as advanced as they are, many people are routinely carrying cameras around with them in their pockets. So the sight of them and digital cameras being produced at events as momentous as the lying in state of Pope John Paul II may be of little surprise.

But it is a sensitive area. Regulations about photographing and filming a dead pope were bought in after Pius XII's personal doctor, Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, sold sensationalistic photographs of the dying and dead Pope to the media in 1958.


Taking pictures or filming a pope on his sick bed were banned and anyone taking pictures after death must have permission of the chamberlain and show the body only in pontifical vestments.

Although not embalmed, according to the Vatican, the pontiff's body has been "prepared" and he is dressed in vestments. So there are no rules to stop the public taking pictures of the Pope lying in state and Vatican security staff have made no attempt to stop them, but is it disrespectful?

Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers' Magazine, says people often try to pin moral judgements on what is a matter of social etiquette.

People are there to pay their respects so might think taking a souvenir of the moment is inappropriate
Julian Baggini
The Philosophers' Magazine

"Technology has changed the way we relate to the world," he says. "Younger people use their mobile phones to share every moment, it is socially a good thing.

"People will go back and talk about what they saw and that isn't considered ghoulish. Why is taking a picture that much different? It is just sharing the information straight away.

"New technology changes the way we interact and to some it seems inappropriate. This is often a knee-jerk reaction and about changes in social etiquette - little to do with what is morally right or not.

The real issue is whether taking a picture with a mobile phone is a breach of hospitality, he says.

"People are there to pay their respects so might think taking a souvenir of the moment is inappropriate, making a moment of private reflection into something public."

Cultural differences

Daniel Sokol, a medical ethicist at Imperial College, says it is important to unpick a person's initial response to people taking pictures.

"If they find people taking pictures disrespectful it might be because it is unusual to see a dead body in their culture," he says. "But that is not an argument for saying it is immoral.

"I think the issue is about context and consent, where the body is and if people have permission or not."

Different responses come down to cultural difference, says Catholic Herald reporter Freddy Gray.

"British people often don't understand the Italian or Spanish attitude towards death," he says.

"They have a different mindset, they don't fear a dead body. In Britain today death is treated the same way sex was in Victorian times. It is not talked about and when it is we use phrases like 'passed over'."

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