How the Catholic Church Verifies the Pope’s Death

Given all the conflicting news items about Pope John Paul II, it’s worth noting that the Church has a formal procedure for verifying papal death:

What Happens When the Pope Dies? (America)

When the pope dies, the prefect of the papal household (Bishop James Harvey) informs the camerlengo or chamberlain who must verify his death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, the cleric prelates of the Apostolic Camera, and the secretary of the Apostolic Camera who draws up a death certificate. As late as 1903, at the death of Leo XIII, this was done by striking the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer. It may also have been used on John XXIII. One colleague remembers a picture in Life magazine (which I have not had time to look for) in 1958 showing Cardinal Tisserant, then Dean of the College of Cardinals, striking the dead Pope on the forehead and asking, three times, “Eugenio, are you dead?” after each stroke, before saying: “I declare that His Holiness Pope Pius XII is truly dead”. The camerlengo (Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo) tells the vicar of Rome (Cardinal Camillo Ruini) of the pope’s death and the vicar then informs the people of Rome. Meanwhile the prefect of the papal household tells the dean (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) of the college of cardinals who informs the rest of the college, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, and the heads of nations. Although this is the formal procedure, in fact most people will first hear of the death of the pope from the media.

The camerlengo locks and seals the private apartment of the pope. In the past looting of papal apartments by his staff, the cardinals or the Roman populace was a common custom. Today popes are more concerned that their private papers not get into the wrong hands. If the pope writes a will, the executor he appoints will take care of his private property and his private papers. This executor is answerable only to the next pope. The pope̢۪s Fisherman̢۪s ring and his seal are broken to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries. No autopsy is performed, which can lead to wild media speculation if the pope dies suddenly as occurred with John Paul I.

Of course, there are also formal procedures for the transition — or, more precisely, the “interregnum” — but we’ll come to that when the appropriate time comes.

Soon enough, the world will begin discussing the election and the future of the papacy. While, as a devout Catholic, I welcome this discussion (indeed, I have an old post on possible candidates), I truly hope that it does not detract from the memorial that John Paul II’s life deserves.

FILED UNDER: Religion, ,
Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Joyse says:

    As i commented previously, the Pope came to our town a few years ago. I am a spiritualist, but the presence of His Holiness, effected all of us profoundly. Our city seemed to transform during the Popes visit, and being in the bar business, I can assure you, it was VERY noticeable in all aspects. He was a Presence. I pray he goes softly into the night.

  2. david mulloy says:

    The utter, utter sadness. After all these centuries of ignorance, misery and degradation, bloodletting and torture some of us…excellent people… want another pappa. I do not. The utter, utter sadness. Made by pope and destroyed by pope. Let the whole sad thing end. No more. Let us find our own way through life and death..we can’t really do any worse. No more pretend teaching the truth.