Pius XII – the Pope who exploded!

One of the most botched examples of embalming in history with catastrophic results was that of Pope Pius XII when he died in October 1958. Dead popes are put on display and processed before an elaborate burial. Therefore they need to look presentable. Unfortunately for Pius XII, his doctor was clueless when it came to embalming and made it up as he went along. The result of this? Pope Pius XII exploded!

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The worst embalming in modern times

Pope Pius XII died at the papal summer palace of Castel Gandolfo. The pope’s doctor since 1939 was Dr. Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, a Vatican functionary who was keen to experiment with an embalming technique he thought would smooth the late pope’s path to sainthood.

For centuries, the incorruptibility of a holy person’s body had been taken to be a sign of God’s favour. Put another way, if you dug up a long dead priest, nun, or pope and they still looked fresh faced – then that was a miracle. And they should be canonised.

Churches in Italy and other Catholic countries still display bodies that are claimed to have shown no signs of rot because of their holiness. So, Dr. Galeazzi-Lisi undoubtedly hoped that his approach to embalming would ensure that at some point in the future Pope Pius XII would become Saint Pius.

However – there was a problem. The doctor had no idea what he was doing. In fact, by all accounts he wasn’t proficient at any branch of medical activity. But embalming was certainly not his forte. So – how did his crazy approach to corpse preservation lead to a situation where the pope exploded?

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How the Pope exploded

A very informative post on The Anatomy Lab blog gives us a thorough scientific perspective. But I can distil the facts down as follows:

  • Dr. Galeazzi-Lisi soaked the body of Pope Pius XII in oils then wrapped it tightly in cellophane creating a sealed envelope and therefore a build up of gases as he had not employed the usual approaches to arrest decay after death
  • This failed to preserve the pope’s internal organs which as they broke down built up a large amount of gas in the dead body
  • Two processes were now underway and unchecked – putrefaction and autolysis
  • Add to this – the body of Pope Pius XII was not refrigerated and it was a hot summer in Rome
  • During the four day lying in state – having been unwrapped from his cellophane envelope – the chest cavity exploded
  • Swiss Guards standing around the body as pilgrims filed past fainted because of the overwhelming stench and had to be rotated every 15 minutes
  • Eventually, the skin of Pius XII turned a greenish colour and the final blow to his dignity in death was when his nose and fingers fell off

Without proper embalming, the pope had released not only significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the surrounding air but also hydrogen sulphide. If you’ve ever smelt a stink bomb sold by a joke shop – then that is the pungent odour Swiss Guards were forced to inhale.

Pilgrims who queued several times to see Pope Pius XII lying in state in an open casket noted that his skin was a different colour at each viewing. His face was bloating. The mouth was opening. Bit by bit, he was coming to resemble a zombie pope!

It should be noted that when Pope Paul VI passed away in August 1978, similar horror was reported by pilgrims who could see the late pontiff rotting before their eyes. The humid summer heat, absence of air conditioning, and camera lights were cooking the Holy Father. To avoid the scandal of 1958 repeating, a decision was made to close his coffin ahead of the appointed time.

Pictured above – Dr Galeazzi-Lisi

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The papal doctor responsible for the pope who exploded

For two decades, the man in charge of the pope’s health was Dr Galeazzi-Lisi. Proximity to the pope brought temptation. In 1958, as the pope suffered his final heart problems and a cerebral stroke, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi took photos of the dying pontiff and leaked stories to the press. While at the same giving solemn media updates on his patient’s condition.

He kept a detailed diary and ten days after the death of Pope Pius, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi sold the contents to several Italian newspapers. As criticism of his conduct began to mount and the fact that his patient had exploded – the newspapers in question decided not to print. Except for one newspaper, my research has shown, that then back-pedalled furiously as the scandal grew.

To create some distance between the media and the doctor – and not alienate their Catholic readership – the National Association of the Italian Press unanimously condemned the doctor for “disgusting comportment” in selling his diary – while neglecting to mention that members of the association had bought the offending material.

A fortnight after Pius XII died, the dubious doctor was fired as Director of Vatican City Health Services. The church was so appalled by his conduct that the College of Cardinals gave instructions to the Swiss Guards – the bodyguards of the pope – to exclude him from both the Vatican City and any Vatican owned properties.

Even his own professional bodies banned him from practising. In December 1958, the Rome Medical Association stripped him of the right to practice medicine. But all the while, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi protested his innocence: “I feel completely at rest with my conscience. I have not betrayed any professional secrets. The medical profession secret ends with the death of the patient.”

Yet it’s clear this was a bald-faced lie.

Pope Pius before he exploded – a sickly man

Four years before his death, Pope Pius was expected to die after coronary failure accompanied by acute depression and constant hiccups. A surgeon friend of mine assures me that hiccups are often a sure sign of damage to the heart. And Pius was notorious for his constant hiccuping.

One could argue that to his credit, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi kept the pope alive for a few years and seems to have been genuinely committed to his patient. Newspaper reports in 1954, when Pope Pius experienced a serious collapse in his health, claimed the doctor emerged from the papal apartments visibly weary from long vigils at the pope’s bedside. But questions remain over whether this man was utterly incompetent.

And of course he went on to create a situation where the pope exploded!

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What happens when a Pope dies

There are some bizarre rituals around the death of a Pope. For example, when the Holy Father is thought to have passed away, the Papal Chamberlain takes a silver hammer and taps his head firmly three times shouting out his baptismal name. The same hammer is then used to break the Fisherman’s Ring, which the pope wears as a sign of his position.

From the 16th century up until the death of Pope Leo XIII in 1903, the hearts and lungs of dead popes were sent to the church of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio near the Trevi Fountain to be embalmed, becoming objections of veneration for the faithful.

Many of you may have gained your knowledge of rituals around a papal death from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. It’s basically correct but I hope the details above have filled in any missing knowledge.

Mercifully not a single pope has exploded since 1958.

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