The death of the pope is a pretty big deal to the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world. But there’s lots of mystery surrounding the traditions that take place when the pope dies. One common belief is that Vatican staff bumps him on the head three times with a silver hammer to ensure he’s dead and not just taking a really solid nap. But is it true?
Is it really such a strange question?
Ok, first let’s dispense with the joke of it all. While it may seem silly, the Catholic church has many millennia-old rituals that they carry on simply for the sake of tradition.
At the start of the papacy, it’s not totally out of the question that there would be some sort of way to guarantee a man that important was truly dead.
And, frankly, we wouldn’t put it past some papal dynasties (we’re looking at you, Borgias) to use the hammer to *ahem* ENSURE someone was dead (even if they didn’t start out that way).
All we’re saying is that who knows what people were doing in late antiquity and the Middle Ages? But this doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
Do we know what happens when the pope dies?
So, we’re not surprised that there’s a ritual to ensure the pope is truly dead. But what is it?
These days, we’re pretty sure technology is employed to make sure there is no brain activity in the body. That’s what we do for almost everyone else.
Even Snopes – the revered fact-checkers and rumor-killers – took on the task of trying to find out if this is all bologna or not. And they couldn’t make a determination.
Investigating the legend
According to Snopes (cited below): “Disagreement exists as to whether such a procedure is part of the parting process. We do know that once a Pope appears to have left this world, a pronouncement is made in Latin that he is dead, with this news certified by a physician. The camerlengo (chamberlain) calls out the pontiff’s baptismal name three times over the corpse in an effort to prompt a response. Failing to get one, he defaces with a silver hammer that particular Bishop of Rome’s Pescatorio (Ring of the Fisherman), along with the dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters. The pope’s quarters are then sealed, and funeral arrangements are begun by the camerlengo.”
Ok, so here’s where we get the silver hammer part. The ring and his seals are destroyed to avoid any fraud on behalf of the dead pope. That makes sense, even if there are now better ways to render these pieces of metal unusable.
The rumor that the hammer then meets the forehead appears to have been popularized by Stephen Bates, a journalist who wrote an article in The Guardian on rituals associated with the pope’s death.
But here’s the kicker. There’s only one source that fully denies the rumor is true. It’s a correction from The Guardian a few weeks later, stating:
Yet The Guardian ran the following correction a few weeks later:
“The article below included the assertion that the corpse of a Pope is ritually struck on the head with a silver hammer to ascertain that there is no sign of life. According to the Vatican, this is a myth.”
There’s no identification of the source at all.
Since the so-called denial, which is impossible to check, there have been more articles asserting that the ritual is real. Or, at the very least, it was up until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
But who knows? The Vatican isn’t one to share its secrets – that’s why people keep writing books about them. – WTF fun facts