What will Pope Benedict’s funeral look like? Pope Francis will preside.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Visitors reach out toward Pope Benedict XVI at a mass he led at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., during his 2008 visit to the United States.

VATICAN CITY – Benedict XVI broke with tradition when he became the first pope in six centuries to abdicate, and his funeral – scheduled for Thursday in St. Peter’s Square – will set new precedents, too.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Benedict’s funeral would be “simple,” with only two formal delegations attending: from Italy and from the former pope’s native Germany.

Simple is not typically a word associated with the funerals of sitting popes. The Mass for John Paul II lasted three hours and was at the time the largest attended funeral in history. The guidelines for papal funerals are laid out in a 400-page Vatican handbook: “Funeral Rites of the Roman Pontiff.”

But the Vatican is now having to determine which of those funeral traditions should apply to an ex-pope.

“Rites and ceremonies after the death of a reigning pope are clear and already well elaborated,” said Ulrich Nersinger, who studies the Vatican and has worked for the papal ceremonial office. “The big problem is: What do you do if it’s a pope emeritus who dies? That’s a new experience.”

The last pope to abdicate was Gregory XII in 1415. But church historians say that case doesn’t offer a helpful precedent for modern times. The position of pope was more of a political office then, said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology. And Gregory XII followed a very different path than Benedict after stepping down in 1415, amid a historic schism within the church. Whereas Benedict kept his name, continued to wear papal white and retired to a monastery within Vatican City, Gregory assumed his previous name, Angelo, and moved away from the Vatican to the town of Ancona. It is Benedict’s mourning period and funeral that will more likely set the precedent for future popes who retire.

Nersinger suggested that some direction may come from Benedict’s last will and testament, but much will also depend on the decisions of Francis.

Here’s what we know so far.

When is Pope Benedict’s funeral?

On Monday, Benedict’s body was placed in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican for public viewing. It will remain there until his funeral on Thursday in St. Peter’s Square.

It is not yet clear if the traditional nine-day mourning period, the novemdiales, be observed after his burial.

Who will preside at Benedict’s funeral?

Pope Francis will preside, the Vatican said, taking on a responsibility that traditionally falls to the dean of the College of Cardinals. A sitting pope celebrating Mass for his predecessor will mark a historic moment for the church – though it was Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who led the funeral Mass for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Where will Benedict be buried?

The Vatican said Benedict will be interred in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica. Benedict biographer Peter Seewald, who interviewed him at length, has said the former pope intended to be buried there – in the tomb that contained John Paul II’s remains before he was beatified in 2011 and they were transferred upstairs to the Altar of St. Sebastian.

Sitting popes can specify their desired burial location. Some have designated important churches in Rome or their local parishes. But the majority have chosen St. Peter’s Basilica – putting them in proximity to the disciple of Jesus who would go on to lead the early Christian Church. A marble plaque on the wall indicates that 148 popes – out of 266 – have been interred there, though some of those were subsequently moved. Today, the remains of 91 popes are in the Vatican grottoes, while those who have been sainted have more prominent spots within the basilica.

How have the mourning rituals been different for Benedict?

The bells at St. Peter’s Basilica were not tolled for Benedict’s death, something that would happen only for the death of a sitting pope, a Vatican spokesman said.

While he was laid out in red for the public viewing, the Vatican’s news site noted that he was lying in state without a pallium, a vestment that would not be used for a “retired prelate.”

Of course, some other customs aren’t relevant. There was no need this week to destroy the “ring of the fisherman” that doubles as a papal seal – his customized ring was already slashed to make it unusable when he stepped down in 2013. And the mourning period won’t be followed by the drama of a conclave to select his successor. That’s already happened, too.

How are popes buried? Why three coffins?

Traditionally, interment takes place four to six days after a pope’s death. Three coffins are involved: an inner coffin made of cypress and bound shut with red ribbons; a slightly larger middle casket made of zinc and adorned with a cross, the pope’s name, the years of his papacy and his personal coat of arms; and an outer casket of elm or walnut, which is sealed with gold nails.

The symbolism behind the three coffins is not widely understood. Christopher Bellitto, a Kean University historian who studies the church, said via email that the tradition is “arcane.” Faggioli suggested the three coffins could offer heightened protection of the pope’s body – perhaps related to a time when the pope was a political figure and his remains needed to be protected from enemies.

Gabriel Radle, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said the zinc coffin confers a certain prestige while also helping to preserve the body, which would be exhumed if that pope is formally declared “blessed.” The wood, meanwhile, may serve as a visual connection to the common man, showing that “in their death, they are just like any other person on their way to their death,” Radle said.

Before the funeral Mass, a pope’s body is placed in the simple cypress coffin and blessed with holy water, and a white veil is placed over his face. Alongside him are coins minted in the years he was in office and a copy of a eulogy detailing his life.

The closed coffin, covered in a white pall, rests on a catafalque during the Mass, with a Book of the Gospels laid on top. Afterward, it is carried to the crypt, where the three coffins are sealed and then placed inside the sepulcher, while the small group of Vatican officials in attendance sing “Salve, Regina.”

Can popes be cremated or donate organs?

Popes are not cremated. The Catholic Church has a long-standing preference for inhumation, or burying the body, going back to early Christianity. This practice was more in line with Jewish traditions of the 1st century, Radle said, noting that Jesus was buried. But more importantly, inhumation aligns with the Christian belief in resurrection, which says that Christ will return and that when he does, the souls of his followers will be reunited with their bodies. “The faithful rise with Christ in a corporeal sense,” Radle said. “Historically, cremation was seen as something that dishonors the Christian belief in the sanctity of the body.” It was only in 1963 that ordinary Catholics were permitted to be cremated.

While the Catholic church does encourage organ donation – both Francis and Benedict have endorsed it, the former calling it a “manifestation of generous solidarity”- the pope himself cannot donate organs. According to a letter written by his secretary in 2011, Benedict had an organ donation card, but it became invalid when he was elected to the papacy. There’s some concern among Vatican officials that if a pope who donated organs became a saint, the organs would become relics in another person’s body. “From a Catholic moral theology perspective, I’m not sure everyone would agree with that, but I can see the logic,” Radle said. “It goes back to the integrality of a person being body and soul.”

For a long time, though, hearts and intestines were removed from deceased popes as part of embalming procedures. The church of Saints Vincent and Anastasius at Trevi in Rome contains the embalmed hearts of 22 popes, going back to Sixtus V in 1590, preserved as relics. The practice was discontinued in the 20th century, though the part of John Paul II’s intestine that was removed after his assassination attempt was sent to that same church.