ATLAS OBSCURA

Funerals in the Vatican: Discovering the Final Rites of the Popes

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. 

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 SoldierLives 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.

Keep reading for more of what happens when popes die, on Atlas Obscura…