The death of a sitting or former pope marks the beginning of a mourning period that follows strict rules of protocol. Most of the activities during this period are ceremonial and highly symbolic. Here’s everything you need to know about what happens when the Pope dies.
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Immediately After Death
The pope’s chief of staff, or Camerlengo, is the first person to be notified when the pope dies. He is in charge of all arrangements including certifying the pope’s death, organising for the body to lie in state, making funeral arrangements and preparing for the election of a successor.
The camerlengo ceremonially verifies the Pope’s death, which is itself an interesting process.
In the presence of the master of papal liturgical celebrations, and of the cleric prelates, secretary and chancellor of the Apostolic Camera, he calls out his baptismal name three times. If there is no response, a death certificate is authorised.
There are claims that the camerlengo also taps the pope’s head 3 times using a small silver hammer while calling out his name. But this is likely a myth. There was such a practice a long time ago, but it hasn’t been done for decades.
Destroying The Papal Seal
The Camerlengo notifies the cardinal vicar for the Diocese of Rome, who in turn passes the news to the public. He then takes possession of the Ring of the Fisherman worn by the pope along with the papal seal.
These are later destroyed before the College of Cardinals. Traditionally this was to prevent forgery but in recent times to mark the end of the pope’s tenure.
The chief of staff also seals off the pope’s private quarters and office desk. This was customary done to avoid looting. Today, it’s mostly done to safeguard the late Pope’s sensitive documents.
When the pope dies (or resigns), the period of sede vacante, which is Latin for “the time of the empty throne” begins. The period following the pope’s death until the election of his successor is called the interregnum.
During this period, the government and administration of the Catholic Church falls to the College of Cardinals, but in a very limited capacity. All cardinals are obliged to attend the general congregation of cardinals, except those with health issues or are non-voting members.
The congregation is tasked with certain burial arrangements for the pope which takes place within 4 – 6 days following the pope’s death. This allows time for the faithful to pay their respects within the nine-day mourning period called novemdiales, which is Latin for ‘nine days’.
The funeral takes place in St. Peter’s Square. At funeral masses, the bier (a frame on which the Pope’s body is placed) is set in front of an outside altar. Paul VI introduced placing of the Gospels on the coffin. Next to it the Paschal candle to symbolise resurrection and eternal life.
The bier is wheeled into the basilica after the mass. The late pontiff is covered with a veil over his face before his triple coffin is closed. A marble slab with a simple epitaph is then placed on the grave.
The congregation then sets a date and time to initiate the papal conclave.
Election of the new Pope is done 15 days after the death of the Pope. This may be extended for a maximum of 20 days to allow other cardinals to arrive in the Vatican City.
The conclave is held in the Sistine Chapel under strict rules that are impossible to manipulate. The 10 conclaves convened through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries lasted an average of 4 days.
To become Pope the candidate needs a two-thirds majority. A half majority is also considered in deadlock situations that exceed 33 or 34 ballot rounds.
Ballots used in the last round are burnt and smoke signals are used to sign the outcome; black smoke means a failed election while white means a successful one.
On successful conclusion of the election where the Pope-elect accepts, and is already a bishop, he immediately takes office.
The Dean of the College of Cardinals then exits the conclave to announce to the world. The new pope will then join him to deliver an Apostolic Blessing.
Why is the Pope Buried in Three Coffins?
When the pope dies, the church carries out The Ritual of Three Coffins. Each of the coffins is symbolic and serves its unique purpose. Thanks to this age-long practice, many early church documents have been preserved.
The Cypress Coffin
The first and innermost coffin is made of cypress. The simple wooden coffin signifies that the Pope is an ordinary man like everyone else.
The body of the late pontiff along with three bags of coins: one of gold, one of silver and one of copper, are placed in this coffin. The number of coins in each bag represents the number of years of his reign.
The coffin is closed and wrapped with 3 silk ribbons and placed in the second coffin.
The Zinc Coffin
The next coffin is made of zinc and sealed with lead. It signifies durability.
This coffin is inscribed with the pope’s name and dates of service. It is also adorned with skull and crossbones as an artistic symbol and reminder that death is unavoidable. It is represented by the Latin term Memento mori meaning “remember that you will die”.
The destroyed papal seal along with important documents issued under the pope’s reign are placed in this coffin before it is soldered shut.
The zinc coffin creates an airtight barrier keeping the moisture out. This preserves the body for longer.
The Elm Coffin
Finally, both coffins are placed in a final wooden coffin, traditionally crafted from elm. In the recent past oak and walnut have been used in place. It signifies great dignity given how rare and precious elm is in Rome.
The bishop in charge of the pope’s official proclamations then reads a list of achievements of the pope after which he rolls and places the parchment in a copper tube.
The tube is placed in the coffin and hammered shut with golden nails. The casket is then wrapped with two violet silk cords and sealed in wax and coat of arms of the chamberlain and the Cardinal Dean.
When Was The Last Time a Pope Died?
Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope in 6 centuries to resign. After his retirement in February 2013, Benedict chose to retain his papal name rather than using his birth name. He gained his Pope Emeritus status.
Benedict died on December 31, 2022 at the age of 95. His funeral mostly followed the same protocol as that of an active pope as observed in the “Funeral Rites of the Roman Pontiff”.
Pope Francis paid his respects to his predecessor Benedict XVI, joining thousands of faithful who gathered to honour him. He presided over a rare requiem mass for a dead pontiff by a living one.