How the Papacy Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & Dave Roos

The Passing of a Pontiff

When a pope dies, the nontheological authority of the papacy passes temporarily to the cardinal camerlengo, or chamberlain, who is the Vatican's secretary of state. The camerlengo has many responsibilities when the pope dies. First, he confirms the pope's death by calling the pope's real name three times without response. Some sources say he also gently taps him on the head three times with a silver hammer. (Recent deaths of popes also have been confirmed with doctors.) He then authorizes the pope's death certificate, and closes and locks the pope's private apartment in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. The camerlengo also organizes and presides over the election of the next pope.

At the time of death, the camerlengo removes the Ring of the Fisherman, which the pope receives from the camerlengo upon his election. Popes have worn the Ring of the Fisherman for more than 800 years. The gold ring includes an image of St. Peter in a boat, fishing, encircled by the name of the current pope. The ring and the pope's seals are destroyed during the camerlengo's first meeting with the cardinals following the pope's death.


The pope's body lies in repose for nine consecutive days, during which time the cardinals of the Catholic Church celebrate the funeral rites. No one is allowed to photograph or film the pope while he is on his sickbed or after his death. The cardinal camerlengo may permit post-mortem photographs for documentary purposes only after the pope is attired in his pontifical vestments.

Before burial, the pope's body is placed inside a cypress coffin that is encased in two others made of elm and lead. The pope is typically buried in the tombs below St. Peter's Basilica, where St. Peter is buried.

During the time between the pope's death and the election of a new pope, the world focuses on the tiny sovereignty of Vatican City. In the next section, we will examine the complex process by which a pope is elected.