Burial Procedures for Catholic Popes

Vatican City has been the home of the popes starting with the apostle Peter.
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The Bishop of Rome is more commonly known as the Pope. The College of Cardinals elects him after the sitting pope has died and he is considered to be the religious leader of all the Catholics in the world. When a pope passes on, he is subject to a set of rituals and rules that apply only to him, as they have for centuries.

1 Burial Location

Beneath the cupola of the Basilica of Saint Peter at the center of Vatican City in the western edge of Rome lie the Vatican Grottoes. This crypt is among the most exclusive burial chambers in the world with deceased Catholic Popes and European royalty as its only residents. When a pope dies, he is placed in the tomb alongside his brethren, including Saint Peter himself. The crypt can be found at the base of a staircase beneath a large wooden baldachin, or canopy, before the main altar and is considered the holiest area in Vatican City.

2 Time of Death

Immediately following the death of a pope, a medical doctor examines the body and then the death is announced within the chamber in Latin, which remains the official language of the church. The pope's camerlengo, or chamberlain, then attempts to revive the pope and ensure that he has truly passed by saying his given name loudly three times and waiting for a response. He will then use a dedicated silver hammer to strike the pope on the forehead to again ensure the pope is no longer living. After the pope has been confirmed dead according to tradition, the camerlengo will destroy the pontiff's ring and any official papal seals so that no correspondence can continue falsely in the name of an already deceased pope. Outside the pope's apartments, the front doors to St. Peter's Basilica are closed and the flags are lowered to half-mast.

3 In Repose

When a pope dies, the Vatican provides followers from around the world the opportunity to view the body and pay their final respects for a period of nine days called the "novemdiales" during which a daily mass is said in dedication. The body is placed in the Clementine Chapel inside St. Peter's Basilica for a period of three to five days. Worshippers are permitted into the church to view the body during this time. On the fourth, fifth or sixth day, the funeral takes place either at the main altar or outside in Saint Peter's Square. Before the mass, the pope's body is placed into a plain cypress coffin, which is then placed into a second lead coffin and these two are placed into a third oak or elm coffin. The final coffin is sealed with nails made of gold.

4 Burial

During the burial process, the Vatican Grottoes are entered through a door at the left hand side of the altar. The body is carried in and a bell is rung one time inside the Basilica. The three coffins in which the pope's body already rests are placed in a marble tomb and covered over with a stone cap. The grave is adorned according to the wishes of the individual pope. Some are covered with decoration and finery and others have only a plaque indicating the pontiff's name and lifetime. Bags of copper, silver and gold coins that symbolize every year the pope led the church are also buried inside the tomb. A eulogy listing the biography and accomplishments of the fallen pope is also included.

5 Special Cases

If a pope is beatified after his death and made into a saint, he will be moved from the basic grave that all popes occupy and placed in a separate chapel so that worshippers may pay their respects and pray to him. This process was performed after Pope John Paul II was granted sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. Although most popes are buried in the Vatican Grottoes, this is not a mandatory resting place. Popes are free to choose their burial location just like anyone else.

Robert Morello has an extensive travel, marketing and business background. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in 2002 and has worked in travel as a guide, corporate senior marketing and product manager and travel consultant/expert. Morello is a professional writer and adjunct professor of travel and tourism.