Benedict, the papist formerly known as Pope Benedict, has died, in a development deemed unremarkable by anyone familiar with human mortality. He was 95 years old and his debut on the death-tour circuit followed an express set of rules. There are lots of rules in this business. Benedict broke one of them by depoping himself a few years back. Mostly, that just isn’t done. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, or unsound of mind, or plagued with doubt, or anything else, you are expected to pope it out to the very end. If you’re starting to feel fallible, you can just keep it to yourself.
So it was not a given that Mr. Benedict would be accorded the usual foofaraw associated with dead popes, because he wasn’t a pope when he checked out. It hardly seems fair to punish the fellow with a substandard funeral, but nothing about the situation was normal. There has to be a set of rules for everything in a stout religion: behavior, attire, ritual, all of these help guard against a perilous slide into critical thinking.
But Benedict was laid out in accordance with tradition, as if he hadn’t left everyone hanging there, with no one to tell them how they’ve gone wrong. Which means there are people, official people, in charge of dead-pope arrangement. He was presented lying on his back with his head on two crimson pillows and his hands clasped and holding a rosary. I do not know if they have to wire him to the rosary or what. He was famously rigid in life and even more so in death so I suspect once they got him in the proper position he would stay put.
His rigid resolve in life was a matter of comfort to those who are most at ease with one incontrovertible truth. His successor Francis has proved to be much more liberal in temperament and policy, and has horrified the conservative elements in the Church. He has also been criticized by those on the left who think Catholics should be something else altogether, like maybe Unitarians. But it’s their club.
Not only is Benedict supine with his head on two crimson pillows and his giant cone-head hat shooting out the back, like a garden gnome that had been knocked on its butt, but he is resting on an enormous fluffy pillow. Perhaps it was a personal request; people are particular about their pillows. Speaking of personal requests, Benedict’s wish was that his funeral be simple. No problem! The Vatican handbook on funeral rites for popes runs to four hundred pages.
To begin with, popes are to be interred four to six days after their apparent demise. This is to distinguish them from the Jews, who are much more sanitary about the issue. Also, you can’t be too sure about severely holy men. You have to give them a chance to pop back up.
A pope is to be interred in three caskets. The inmost one should be made of cypress and closed with red ribbons. The larger intermediate one is made of zinc and decorated with a cross, the Pope’s name, his years of Service, his coat of arms, and an emergency contact number. The third casket is enormous (see Cone-head Hat, above). It can be made of either walnut or elm and closed with gold nails.
It’s simplicity itself.
I’ll do him one better. When I go, I want to be dipped in suet and rolled in bird seed, and placed outside, face down, please—I’ve always been a stomach sleeper and I don’t want to change up if it’s going to be a long one. If you can’t manage that, see that I am diced up and arranged around a fountain of molten Gruyère with a bowl of toothpicks. Simple.