Funerals in the Vatican: Discovering the Final Rites of the Popes - Atlas Obscura
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Funerals in the Vatican: Discovering the Final Rites of the Popes

article-imageThe Pope lying in state at the National Museum of Funeral History (all images courtesy the museum)

Two late 20th century Catholic leaders — Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII — will be canonized into sainthood on April 27. The event will be live streamed around the world, but it is not the only posthumous honor for the pontiffs. Over in the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas, the funerary traditions of the Vatican are explored in an elaborate exhibition. 

Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes opened in 2008, and the museum is offering it as an opportunity to learn more about what happens when a Pope dies, beyond potential sainthood. Like anything within the Holy See, there is much pomp and ritual, and it’s something most of us rarely get to see. A life-size diorama of the deceased in repose and a multimedia installation take visitors right inside a funeral mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and its square. 

article-imageReplica of the tomb of Pope John Paul II

The museum, started in 1992, is dedicated to the history of mourning around the world, with exhibitions including Fantasy Coffins from Ghana19th century mourning customs, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Lives and Deaths of the Popes is the result of three years of collaboration with the Vatican, even working with the papal tailor to create replica vestments.

A meticulous copy of the coffin used in the burial of the three previous popes is on display, as well as a duplicate of Pope John Paul II’s crypt, the full installation aiming to give you “a true sense of attending a Pope’s funeral.” As the title promises, there are also artifacts related to papal life, including the “Pope-mobile” that Pope John Paul II rode in during his 1982 UK tour. 

article-image1982 Pope-mobile

Over in Pope John Paul II’s former home in Wadowice, Poland, another high tech experience is opening today: the Museum of the Holy Father John Paul II Family Home. Pope John XXIII before sainthood received one of the ultimate holy rites — his body was exhumed under Pope John Paul II himself and is now on display in a glass coffin in Saint Peter’s.

As both now move into sainthood, the details of their lives from birth to death will likely get even more attention, and the National Museum of Funeral History is the best chance to understand their mortal end. And on your way out, don’t forget your souvenir Lives and Deaths of the Popes coffee mug from the gift shop.

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Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes is at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas.