Thursday, April 14, 2011

Popes: Pickled, Preserved, and Putrefying.

the image today is the catafalque for the funeral of Pius XII
There is a lot of excitement about the upcoming beatification of John Paul II including speculation about whether, when the body is disinterred, will it be “perfectly preserved.”  There are plans that his coffin will be on display for a period of time in Saint Peter’s Basilica, but some are hoping that the remains will be intact and the body of the pope will be put on display.  When the body of John XXIII was disinterred in 2001 it was found to be in remarkably good shape, but the Vatican has said that there is nothing miraculous about this as the body had been properly embalmed before its burial in 1963.  When one visits Saint Peter’s Basilica today one can see the remains of John XXIII in a glass coffin beneath the altar of “The Last Communion of Saint Jerome” on the eastern side of the basilica’s north transept.  John does look pretty good for someone who has been dead almost fifty years.  On the other hand what you actually see is a finely crafted wax mask and “gloves” covering the actual face and hands of the deceased pope.  There apparently was some discoloration of the skin over a period of time which is not abnormal in embalmed bodies.    
There are several other deceased popes and prelates on view beneath the various altars of the basilica, most notably Pope St. Pius X (pope from 1903-1914), Pope Bl. Innocent XI (pope from 1676-1689) and Saint Josaphat, Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Polotsk (martyred 1623).  Their bodies are all on display, but faces and hands—the only visible parts—are concealed by silver masks and gloves.  I do remember my first several trips to Rome before the time when Josaphat’s face and hands were covered and I would describe the remains more as “mummified” than as “preserved” if, what one means by “preserved” is appearing as natural as at the time of death.  Perhaps I will do some entries in the future about various saintly remains in Rome and elsewhere that are deemed to be “incorrupt.” 
But all this brings up the topic about preserving papal bodies.  When John Paul I died, somewhat unexpectedly, the lack of an autopsy was explained by the “fact” that papal bodies are never autopsied.   But this is not true—autopsies were performed on a number of popes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Furthermore, it was a common practice as part of the embalming practice of the time to remove the entrails and internal organs of the popes and place them in canopic jars which were then inhumed in the Church of Saints Anastasio e Vincente facing the Trevi Fountain.  Twenty-two of the popes between  Sixtus V (d. 1590) and Gregory XVI (died 1846).  (I have heard as many as 25 popes and as late as Leo XIII (d. 1903) but the information varies from source to source and I have chosen the most conservative statistics.  I hope that when I am in Rome again next month I might be able to check for myself the plaque to the left of the altar that records the information).    This Church was chosen as the depository for the remains because of its proximity to the Quirinale Palace which was the usual residence of the Popes from the end of the sixteenth century until the fall of Papal Rome in 1870.  The Church was long referred to as the parrochia  pontificale —the papal parish.
There has been no consistency on the issue of embalming papal bodies.  John Paul II supposedly was not embalmed but “prepared.”  It seems that what the Vatican meant by “prepared” was sufficient embalming to prevent an embarrassing incident during the laying in state.  News reports at the time said the pope was not arterially embalmed (which would have involved replacing the blood in the arterial system with a preservative fluid) as was John XXIII, but that at least visible parts of the body—hands, head, and neck were injected with sufficient preservatives to keep the body presentable until burial.  Orifices (mouth, ears, nose) would have been sealed to prevent leakage of internal fluids while the body was on display.   This sort of embalming would not prevent or even significantly delay decomposition.  I saw the John Paul’s body twice—once as it was carried into the Basilica for the laying-in-state and once (the day before the funeral) while it lie-in-state before the central altar.  He didn’t look great—I must admit—but most dead bodies don’t unless under special lighting and the Vatican makes no attempt for its deceased to “look like he’s just  sleeping.”   I don’t recall how John Paul I’s body held up or what preparation had been done to it, though I seem to recall that like his successor the body had been “prepared” rather than embalmed.  Paul VI likewise had been only lightly embalmed; he had died August—the hottest and most humid month in Rome and thus not a good time for dead bodies awaiting burial.  By the time came to put him in his coffin and close it most sources agreed burial had been delayed a little too long.  
One of the reasons that John XXIII probably had been thoroughly embalmed is the disaster over the preparation of the body of his predecessor, Pius XII. You know, this whole thing is getting a little macabre and it’s about to get even more ghoulish, much more.  Pius’ physician, Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, a man of questionable skill and no discretion, organized the embalming according to a new method devised by Professor Oreste Nuzzi from Naples.  A papal funeral is not the time to experiment, but Galeazzi-Lisi and Nuzzi put the pope’s body in a plastic bag filled with herbs, spices, and resins “that,”they claimed,  were “the same with which the body of Jesus Christ was preserved.”  Well, Jesus wasn’t dead that long, and what happened to Pius wasn’t pretty.  Pius died in October and the summer of 1958 was a lingering one.  The heat at Castle Gondolfo was oppressive and enclosing the body in an airtight bag actually accelerated the decomposition.  After the body had been “treated” it was dressed in pontifical robes and put in a coffin for the journey into Rome and the funeral at St. Peter’s Basilica.  During a ceremonial stop at the Pope’s cathedral, St. John Lateran, a rumbling noise and “bang” was heard from within the coffin—Pius’s chest cavity had exploded from built up gasses.  Galeazzi-Lisi and Nuzzi had to treat the body two more times but body parts began to detach and the skin turned green and then black—all this within four days of his death.  Several Swiss guards standing watch at the catafalque fainted from the stench and the body had to be recoffined and interred on October 13, 1958—seven days before the scheduled funeral.  At the official funeral on October 20th, an elaborate three tiered catafalque surmounted by the papal tiara replaced the body.   Part of the fault for this debacle goes to Pius himself as he had not wanted the internal organs and workings of the body altered in any way and an essential part of embalming is to release the gasses that build up in the chest and stomach cavities.         
Popes had been routinely embalmed—as had various other world leaders such as Queen Victoria when funerals were to be public and there was to be some delay before burial.  Pius X, a man who always—even when Patriarch of Venice and then as Pope—had cherished the simple customs of his peasant background left instructions that he was not to be embalmed—which makes his reported incorrupt status somewhat remarkable.  Of course embalming techniques before the latter part of the nineteenth century were not only primitive but verged on the barbaric.  Papal bodies—unlike British Royalty and current American practice for public funerals—were traditionally displayed for burial not so much for religious reasons as to demonstrate that the body of the deceased did not show poison, strangulation or other obvious violence. 
Benedict XV died at 6:00 a.m. on January 22, 1922.  The un-embalmed body (the New York Times, January 24th 1922 says that this was “contrary to the usual practice”) was taken on the 23rd to the Basilica of Saint Peter’s where it lie in state behind the closed grille of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament from eleven in the morning until that evening when it was removed to the crypt and interred on the afternoon of January 24th—just over 48 hours after his death.  Pius XI died seventeen years later on February 10, 1939.  The following day his body was brought to the Vatican Basilica where it lay for four days until its internment.  I have not been a able to find any information as to whether or not he had been embalmed but the delay of five days between death and burial suggests he may have been.
Well, enough of this morose subject.  Perhaps we will revisit some idiosyncrasies of papal  interments at another time, but I knew this one would be an attention grabber.    

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