Weekend At Peter's

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Slate closes out PopeWeek with two closer looks at the fleshy reality behind all the spiritual flapdoodle:

Marc Fisher reminds readers that back in the actual year 1989, it was the allure of big TVs, fresh fruit, and new cars, not the prospect of trading a set of authority figures in drab garb for one authority figure in outlandish garb, that motivated Eastern Europeans to get out into the street.

More intriguingly, the Explainer column takes a CSI look at the Pontiff's unembalmed body and reviews the varied history of papal putrefaction:

John Paul II will not be the first pope to decompose in public. In August of 1978, the body of Paul VI "took on a greenish tinge," and fans were installed in the Basilica to disperse the smell. Twenty years earlier, a maverick doctor persuaded the Vatican to let him try an experimental embalming technique on the body of Pope Pius XII, with disastrous consequences—the body turned black and disintegrated in the casket. Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963, seems to have been treated better: When his embalmed body was disinterred in 2001, it looked to be in pretty good shape.

No word on the incorruptible corpse of actor Raymond Burr, who portrayed the Laughing Pope in the 1973 TV movie Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John.

NEXT: Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged (By Us)

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  1. …and it’s important to look good, even beyond death. Take the case of Pope Formosus. He seems to have lived quite the exciting life, but it wasn’t until he died that things really started happening, indeed, Pope Formosus was excommunicated post-mortem by his successor, Pope John VIII! Here’s what happened:

    “The corpse was disinterred, clad in papal vestments and seated on a throne to face all the charges from John VIII. The verdict was that the deceased had been unworthy of the pontificate. All his measures and acts were annulled, and the orders conferred by him were declared invalid. The papal vestments were torn from his body, the three fingers from his right hand which the pope had used in consecrations were cut off and the corpse was then thrown into the Tiber. Following the death of Stephen the body was reinterred in St. Peter’s.”

    …Now that’s just no way to treat a dead pope!

  2. …ooops! I forgot to post the link!

    http://www.answers.com/topic/pope-formosus

  3. Gee, you think we could get someone to do that to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell when they die? I’d pay good money to see their disgraced (and disgraceful) corpses tossed in a river.

  4. Why wasn’t this pope embalmed?

  5. I wonder how Sin?ad O’Connor is taking the death of the current Pope.

  6. Hitch has written a good essay on the Pope.

  7. Marc Fisher is undoubtably right when he gives the main credit for the fall of Communism in 1989 to the common people willing to take a stand against it. Let’s not forget, however, that if the political will of Eastern European leaders had remained the same as it had been in 1979, there could have been no popular uprising against them.

    The Pope was not solely, or even largely responsible for the end of the Warsaw Pact, but he did play a pivotal role in the survival of Solidarity in 1979-80 and its ability to be a force in Polish politics. This was the “entering wedge” in the political structure of Eastern Europe; coupled with the fervor engendered by the Helsinki Accords and the latter rise of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the ultimate decline and fall of the Eastern European Communist regimes was assured.

    The end of Communism was indeed a mass movement, but it was one made possible by individual initiatives, and the Pope, together with Lech Walewsa, Gorbachev, and others should get their fiar share of credit for their words and actions.

  8. Fisher’s piece is a remarkable compendium of the butt-obvious together with the clueless, from a magazine that already “proved” that Bush had nothing to do with the middle east doing a 180.

    At least it’s hardly news to me that the lifestyle gap was a major source of dissatisfaction in the eastern bloc, and I am quite aware that the Pope did not defeat Communism singlehanded, in the sense that he and General Jaruzelski did not slug it out on pay per view to decide the political system in Poland (though he did, apparently, intimidate Brezhnev out of invading).

    But it’s a blinkered, weak-tea sense of history that thinks it’s only about toasters and cars. I know plenty of Poles in this country who lived under Communism in their youth, and they HATED the society, its dullness, the constant need to watch what you said. Great men helped people who felt that way see that they were not alone, and they honor the Pope this week for bringing them together.

  9. “The Pope was not solely, or even largely responsible for the end of the Warsaw Pact, but he did play a pivotal role in the survival of Solidarity in 1979-80 and its ability to be a force in Polish politics.”

    The lesson here for would-be liberators is the importance of falling in behind genuine, indigineous democratic movements (the people taking to the streets in Warsaw 79 or Kiev 04), rather than trying to gin up phony movements, (the Contras or Ahmed Chalabi’s legions).

  10. Is there an irony in the mackerel-snappers searchin’ for a “fresh” scent?

    I recommend what I purchased at a WalMart in KY today: Nivea.

  11. Oh, hi joe,
    I didn’t see you up there.

  12. Hey KENDALL LEE ALAN SHULTZ, Did you go to Sabbath School this morning?

  13. I went to a funeral today. To Peter Martin’s funeral. In Chatsworth, CA. Died in a motorcycle accident. His birthday was yesterday. He would’ve been 41. Yeah, I was at St. Peter’s square today. .. World without end….

  14. “Gee, you think we could get someone to do that to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell when they die?”

    Why would you wanna pollute a perfectly good body of water like that?

  15. Why would you wanna pollute a perfectly good body of water like that?

    Damn! I knew it seemed to good to come true. Perhaps burning at the stake? No, that’s air pollution. Left for a pack of wild dogs? That’s cruelty to animals. Hmmm, this is tougher than it looks.

  16. How often do you suppose the word “flapdoodle” turns up in stories about a Pope’s passing?

  17. Personally, I was hoping that a desicated, partially decomposed, JPII would get up and start eating the flesh of the faithful mourners in a horrific, Fulci/Romero-style zombie rampage.

  18. “Gee, you think we could get someone to do that to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell when they die?”

    For some reason, I’m reminded of the first line of H. L. Menken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan:

    “Has it been duly marked by historians that William Jennings Bryan’s last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch files?”

  19. edit: Mencken

  20. I was in West Berlin in 1989, and while Mark makes some valid points, he is talking about Germany while completely neglecting where the Pope’s greatest influence was, and year earlier: Poland. While Communism did its best to snuff out religion in Eastern Europe, predominantly Catholic Poland’s burgeoning freedom movement was encouraged by the Pope’s words. To use the comments of a few East Germans in an effort to downplay the Pope’s role in all of Eastern Europe is a bit snarky. While the Pope was not the sole force to the end of Communism any more than Reagan or Gorbachov, to remove his influence would be to overlook an obvious and large factor. Much like actions towards freedom in one country can encourage those sentiments in another, you can’t divorce his role in encouraging that great event.

  21. Ruthless–you wouldn’t happen to be in West Point, KY this weekend, would you?

  22. Exactly what is the point of embalming, anyway? I always thought it was just a scam to make more money for funeral directors.

  23. One reason I heard was that it was introduced in the 19th century to keep people from being buried alive (something that happened quite often it seems). The idea was by replacing the blood with embalming fluid you guaranteed deadness.

    That’s what I heard anyway, I think my father told me. He may have been pulling my leg.

  24. Isaac-
    Your dad may have been telling the truth, at least as far as the 19th century is concerned. People would indeed sometimes go into comas and be mistaken for the dead. I read once that one reason Edgar Allan Poe had so many stories featuring the theme of being buried alive is that he suffered from some ailment which made it likely that he might slip into a coma and be mistaken for dead, so naturally he tended to obsess a bit about it.

    But what’s the point of doing embalming nowadays? None that I can see, at least in industrialized countries with advanced medical knowledge.

  25. Jennifer,

    I think it’s some sort of “public health” thing. Something about a graveyard representing a potential environmental hazard, what with all the decomposing bodies and byproducts thereof seeping down into the water table.

    Of course, once you pump the bodies full of formalin to prevent decrepitude, then you have the possibility of the formalin entering the public water supply, so you seal ’em in a casket, then you seal ’em in an asphalt vault, sealed with tar. Pretty much ain’t no worms gettin’ in there now…

    So that’s why you’re not allowed to decay anymore.

  26. One reason I heard was that it was introduced in the 19th century to keep people from being buried alive (something that happened quite often it seems). The idea was by replacing the blood with embalming fluid you guaranteed deadness.

    I thought that’s why they tap the Pope on the forehead with a hammer 3 times — to make sure he’s not dead.

  27. I’ve told my wife to get the cheapest coffin and embalming services possible.

    Spend the money on a good wake instead.

  28. Jennifer

    I think nowadays embalming is pretty much to pad the undertaker’s bill. Since funeral parlors are heavily regulated one of the disclosures they are required to make is that embalmig is not required by law (in Florida at least). I assume at one point in the past dishonest undertakers would push it and suggest that it was required. I don’t know if embalming is actually required anywhere.

    The need for embalming is pretty questionable today, what with modern medicine being able to determine death with a high degree of certainty (although I have heard of a couple of cases of “corpses” sudenly coming to life in the morgue). That and refrigeration. I suppose it helps if you have an open casket type funeral, though.

    I understand that the ancient Egyptians went thru their whole embalming/preservation shtick because the person would require his body in the afterlife.

  29. thoreau: I’ve told my wife to get the cheapest coffin and embalming services possible. Spend the money on a good wake instead.

    Not me! After reading this story, I’m going to ask my family to find a good humadermist (human taxidermist) make sure I’m preserved and propped up where I can be with them forever.

    Apparently there are virtually unlimited posing possibilities:

    Children have been posed on bicycles and skateboards, grandmothers in rocking chairs, and grandfathers playing boccie ball. One woman wanted her husband posed on his favorite Harley wearing a Hells Angels motorcycle jacket, while in the case of a lesbian couple, the surviving woman wanted her longtime companion dressed in a Frederick’s of Hollywood French maid outfit, cut so as to reveal her buttocks and bosom.

    I’m thinking I would like to be in a comfy chair reading a good book so if I were to have any kids by then (or, preferably, grandkids…) they can sit on my lap and listen to a recording of me reading their favorite story to them. Well, it’s either that or just put me down in the rec room in hockey gear, in full backswing, poised for all eternity to take one final slapshot that, alas, is never to come.

  30. db, no I wasn’t in West Point, KY, this weekend. Did you need my help in some nefarious plot?

    To continue this thread on its slippery tangent: the truly humble way to dispose of “remains” is to drag the body to the nearest teaching hospital–not to brag about how cheap your coffin is.

  31. They find me every freakin’ time! I’ve always harbored an affection for animals of all kinds; but I swear, I hate flying monkeys!

  32. I guess the point of embalming is to leave a good looking corpse.

    Who knows, maybe there are singles bars in the afterlife, too.

  33. I’m far from being a loopy-loo green, but I really like this idea:

    http://www.eternalreefs.com/

    Basically, they take your ashes and blend them into a reef-type cement construct, and dump you into the ocean.

    From what I understand, if you donate your body to a school, they will cremate you for free afterwards. So, basically, the money can be spent on one totally bitching boat-party (to dump the reef), and not a penny goes to Stiff and Slab Funeral Home.

  34. Ruthless,

    No, you mentioned KY in a manner that made me think you were visiting that state, and there was a great reason to visit West Point, KY this weekend: The Knob Creek machinegun shoot. (http://www.machinegunshoot.com)

    Unfortunately I had to miss this one.

  35. From the false equivalencies department, we have:

    “the prospect of trading a set of authority figures in drab garb for one authority figure in outlandish garb. . . .”

    How sad, that so many who claim to have libertarian sensibilities cannot see the difference between authority backed by the mailed fist of the state, complete with firing squads, torture chambers, prisons, and networks of informants, and the purely “civil” authority of the Pope.

    Backed, as one authoritarian observed, by no divisions or other jackboots whatsoever.

  36. Eeyow! I just visited Brian Courts’ human taxidermy link.

    The photos are kinda disturbing. In particular, this ad has “creepy serial killer episode of a cop show” all over it.

  37. Maybe it’s just me, but that article seems to have “media hoax” written all over it. Kinda like that guy who supposedly put his embalmbed wife in a glass living room table.

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