Sunday 21 April 2024

Laying in state of Popes: Francis breaks with tradition

The prayers and readings for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's funeral Mass

"With dignity, like every Christian, but not on pillows" - this is how Pope Francis wants to be buried. The pontiff is therefore in the process of changing the papal burial ritual

Francis explained this in the interview book "El sucesor" ("The Successor") published at the beginning of the month, in which he talks to Spanish journalist Javier Martínez-Brocal primarily about his predecessor Benedict XVI. 

With regard to the funeral of the Pope emeritus, who died on New Year's Eve 2022, the reigning Pope says in the book: "It was the last wake at which the Pope's body was laid out on a catafalque outside the coffin." 

In future, the popes would be buried "like any child of the Church". 

The laying in state of popes - which was previously an integral part of the funeral rites of the head of the Church - is therefore history.

In the course of recent history, the traditional rituals following the death of a pontiff and for his burial have been changed time and again. 

"Pope Paul VI reformed the papal funeral rituals in the sense of a simplicity in keeping with the Gospel," says Ulrich Nersinger about the biggest innovations in the funeral ceremonies of the popes in recent decades. 

The theologian and Vatican expert points to the impressive difference between the funeral of John XXIII in 1963, who was the last pope to be laid to rest "cum maxima pompa", i.e. with full splendour, and the comparatively simple funeral of his successor Paul VI in 1978. 

However, the Montini pope's funeral was also very dignified in its simpler form, says Nersinger.

According to the Augsburg church historian Jörg Ernesti, the abolition of the laying out of dead popes by Francis is clearly in the tradition of Paul VI's reforms. 

"The public presentation of the body on a catafalque could have been abolished as early as 1978," says the theology professor. 

"It is a last relic from the time of overloaded papal funerals."  

Paul VI's funeral in a simple cypress wood coffin, for example, showed that simplicity and dignity can go together. 

"The impressive image of the coffin with the open book of the Gospels, its leaves moving in the wind, has also become a model for subsequent papal funerals," says Ernesti.

Previously, there were also many rites after the death of a pope: "To determine the death of the pontiff, his forehead was struck with a small hammer, he was called by his baptismal name several times and a feather was held over his face to check whether he was still breathing." 

These customs were long outdated in the 20th century due to medical advances, says Ernesti. 

"And today, public lying in state is generally no longer customary, so it can also be abolished for popes." 

This doesn't just apply to the head of the Catholic Church: even after the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, there was no public laying in state with the coffin open.

"Privatisation of the papacy"

However, laying out the bodies of important deceased people is not a thing of the past per se. For example, the exceptional Brazilian footballer Pelé was displayed with his coffin open before his funeral in early January 2023 so that the legend's many fans could say goodbye to their idol. 

However, large parts of his body were covered in white flowers and a white veil lay over the entire coffin. 

A few years ago, bodybuilder, actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger also announced his wish to be laid out in St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna after his death. 

Especially after the death of celebrities and important personalities, there seems to be a public desire to see the deceased once again. 

During the discussion about the public laying out of Benedict XVI's body last year, funeral director Sarah Benz told WDR that such rituals could make it easier to say goodbye. 

"I have found that it is very, very helpful for a great many people," said Benz, who complained at the time that laying in state was no longer common in Germany.

Vatican expert Nersinger also believes that a laying in state is still appropriate for popes. 

"The Pope is not like any other believer," says the theologian. The faithful have the need to look at the deceased pope and say goodbye to him, which will no longer be possible in future. 

"I wonder whether Francis lacks empathy with the Catholics at this point, who would like to do this," says Nersinger. He also sees the long tradition of laying popes to rest as another reason for retaining this custom. Even in ancient times, the Romans used the catafalque, a special frame, to lay out their dead. 

Later, aristocrats and church dignitaries were displayed there after their death until their burial. In modern times, the bourgeoisie also adopted this custom. 

According to Nersinger, when popes are laid to rest, the focus of mourning is not on the respective private person, but on the deceased as pope. 

"This emphasises respect for the office." 

Referring to the judgement of an Italian Vaticanist, the theologian therefore sees the abolition of the laying out of the papal body as a "privatisation of the papacy". 

Francis emphasises his own preferences too much and pays too little attention to tradition.

Without being laid out on a catafalque, another aspect of saying goodbye to popes will also be a thing of the past: the exhibition of transience. 

"When Benedict XVI was laid out, we saw that his body no longer exists in an ideal state," says Nersinger. 

Showing the decay of the human body is a reference to the finite nature of human life. 

Art historian Katharina Sykora told Monopol magazine last year that the Ratzinger pope was initially shown in his function as pope and not primarily as a human being during his laying in state. 

"Under the regalia, only the face and hands are visible, which have been waxily remodelled by the preparations," said the Brunswick professor. "This brings him close to sculpture, which also serves to immortalise him, as has long been the tradition on the marble sarcophagi of popes."

The interview book "El sucesor" also shows that exaggerating his person as Pope would not be in Francis' favour and that this is probably why he has abolished the laying in state. 

There, Francis explains that everything has already been prepared for his burial in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore

He wants to be buried in the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary because he has had a great devotion to the image of the Mother of God in this church since before his pontificate. 

"Just behind the sculpture of the Queen of Peace, there is a small area, a door that leads to a room that was used to store the candlesticks," said the Pope. "I saw it and thought: 'This is the place'." 

A pope's tomb in the former storeroom.

In view of this humility and simplicity, which Francis desires with regard to his own funeral, the question arises as to how the Church will deal with the burial of bishops in future. 

After all, the public display of the bodies of deceased church dignitaries is still common in Germany today. 

In 2017, for example, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne was laid out in the church of St Gereon for several days after his death. 

A year later, the faithful were able to bid farewell to Cardinal Karl Lehmann for a week in the seminary church in Mainz, where he was also embalmed and laid in state. 

At that time, many thousands of people paid their last respects to the cardinals and wanted to catch a glimpse of their bodies as a farewell. 

This need will have to be satisfied differently for popes in future. 

Will the bishops also take this as an example?