One of the eeriest sights in St Peter’s basilica are the Papal corpses covered in wax or bronze and laid in glass coffins, a bit like the one you’d imagine in Snow White.
The beloved popularist Pope John XXIII lies preserved in wax in an apse at the back right of the Basilica. But he is not embalmed. Some Catholics believe spiritual life can linger after death, meaning that a saint’s body fails to decay normally.
Exhumation is standard practice as a part of sainthood investigations and this Pope’s body hasn’t shown signs of decay since he died in 1963. Macabre or magnificent, these curiosities never fail to stop visitors in their tracks.
But this phenomena is more explainable than we might think, according to Vincenzo Pascali from the University of Rome. He said: “Oxygen couldn’t get into the coffin and any in there would have been used up very quickly. They used materials like lead and zinc [for the caskets] which oxidise and slow decomposition.”
Elsewhere in St Peter’s, Pope Pius X, who died in 1913, was the first pope to have prohibited his body to be embalmed. In 1944 his body was also examined for signs of holiness. According to Jerome Dai-Gal, “all of the body” of Pius X “was in an excellent state of conservation”. He was canonised in 1951 and was placed thereafter in a bronze casing.
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