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Some pontiffs met posthumously with secrecy, looting, calamity

ROME -- When he heard that Pope John Paul II had died, Massimo Signoracci crossed himself, murmured a prayer, and waited for a call that never came.

The Signoracci clan, a dynasty of morticians and embalmers whose roots go back to an old Roman cemetery on an island in the Tiber River, has ministered to the last three popes and hoped to be asked to tend to this one as well.

But for reasons that were unclear, no Vatican summons came. To the dismay of the Signoraccis, a forensic medical specialist from a Rome university was called in to take measures to preserve the pope's corpse for five days of public viewing and today's funeral.

''I'm very saddened," said Signoracci, 47. ''It was a tradition that we felt very much part of, being with the Holy Fathers at this time. It was a beautiful thing to us."

Few events are more public, and more momentous, to church faithful than the death of a pope, particularly one as widely admired and well traveled as this one.

Yet the papal afterlife has long been marked by intense Vatican secrecy, bitter professional rivalries, and occasional calamity.

In centuries past, the corpses of some pontiffs were set upon by mobs or looted for relics. Until the beginning of the last century, the internal organs of popes were preserved in jars and interred separately from their bodies, but Pope Pius X, who considered the practice gruesome, put a halt to it before his death in 1914.

Posthumous papal misfortune continued into modern times. In 1958, Pope Pius XII's predeath agony was photographed by an unscrupulous physician and the pictures splashed on the front pages of Italian newspapers. Pius XII was not only tabloid fodder because of the photos; his body also decomposed significantly before burial. Accounts from the time describe his corpse turning ''emerald green" and stolid Swiss Guards fainting from the smell.

When papal aides instructed that Pope Paul VI be only lightly embalmed upon his death in 1978, they failed to take Rome's steamy August weather into account. After two days on public display, the body began to putrefy.

John Paul II's corpse was not embalmed, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, but underwent treatment to preserve it during public viewing. Vatican officials indicated that the procedure involved the injection of a formaldehyde-based fluid, falling short of a full embalming process.

Dr. Giovanni Arcudi, the head of forensic medicine at Rome's Tor Vergata University, confirmed that he had been summoned to the Vatican after the pope's death Saturday night to oversee the body's temporary preservation, but said he had been sworn to secrecy about the details. ''All that was done by myself and my colleagues was carried out with the greatest possible respect for the remains of the Holy Father," Arcudi said.

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