So…is this supposed to be something to make atheists happy?

Sometimes the Christian death cult really creeps me out. There is a museum exhibit called Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes that seems to be particularly heavy on the “death” part. It’s got exhibits to give you the “true sense of attending a Pope’s funeral”, replicas of the geegaws dead popes are dressed up in, and crypt and coffin reproductions. All very morbid and intensely repulsive — do good Catholics actually savor the rituals wrapped around the corpses of their popes?


  1. says

    LOL, the National Museum of Funeral History? With a full-scale replica of Pope John Paul II’s crypt? 5000 square feet of dead Popishness?

    At least they’ve got a nice slogan: “Any Day Above Ground Is A Good One.”

  2. Jeeves says

    I’m pretty sure there is one heck of a dissertation waiting to be written about this website.

  3. BostonRob says

    To be fair, there are more dead popes than live ones.

    @Luke: Yes, that was Pope Formosus on trial.

  4. JamesR says

    They really are as morbid as you guess. On every catholic altar is a carved out niche about 2-3 inches diameter. It contains the bones and other body parts of saints, it is waxed over so that if the altar is ever destroyed then the atifacts can be preserved.

  5. Travis says

    Hey, that looks interesting to me, but then again I’m a rather morbid person and if there was something interesting about their deaths I would like to learn about it. However if it is just some sort of weird veneration of dead popes then I think I would have to pass.

  6. Holbach says

    This morbid display of the chief morons of catholics should be displayed in the basement of the creation museum, reconfigured to look like the catacombs of Rome. A good example of the really dead and the living dead.

  7. Wowbagger says

    They’re creepy weirdos who worship death and are keenly anticipating it happening to all of humanity. Why are we surprised when they want to revel in it?

  8. boattruckboat says

    The entire Catholic religion is built upon weird ritual.

    Being born? Weird ritual.
    Getting married? Weird ritual.
    Random day in church? Weird ritual.
    Going to bed? Weird ritual.

    Have we just stumbled upon their super-secret business plan…?

    1. Weird ritual.
    2. Even weirder ritual.
    3. uh… prophet?
    4. Hell yes profit!

  9. Lurkbot says

    In Antiquity, the dead were buried outside the city walls, to avoid the ritual pollution of contact with corpses. The main thing that made the early Christians so repulsive to their pagan neighbors was their fetishization of death. They would bury their deceased loved ones under the floors of their living rooms and as JamesR said, cut pieces off the corpses of their most venerated leaders and put them in altars or carry them around with them. This seemed as weird and unseemly to educated Greeks and Romans as it does to us, but apparently they’ve never changed.

  10. KiwiInOz says

    I was amused, while touring through the popes’ crypt at the Vatican recently, at the recorded message that kept blaring out at high volume and rotation for everyone to be silent as this was a sacred place.

  11. sus says

    Yes, they are that creepy. There are exposed pope mummies at the Vatican. I was wandering around St. Peter’s and came across one pretty much in the main sanctuary. I was quickly ushered out since a few people were there worshiping and lighting candles. It totally squicked me out.

    I heard a story that one of the old guys (a saint or pope or priest of something) was putrid and rotting, but he healed people. His body was kept and displayed rotting in church, and they’d pour water over it and drink the “filtered” water. Then they’d puke their guts out. Because the vomit was fire and brimstone (acid and sulfur) that proved that drinking this water purged them of devilish influences. Disgusting, huh?

  12. LisaJ says

    I was also going to comment on my experience touring through the basement of the Vatican. They’ve got quite an elaborate set up of dead popes in their coffins, and alot of people seemed to take the whole sacredness vibe very seriously. The mass of people crying in eerie silence at the head of JP’s casket got to be a bit much.

  13. Pony says

    To be fair, this doesn’t seem to be overtly catholic, or even religious in general. They might be affiliated with a church, but browsing the site, it seems to be more about funeral customs in general than anything specific to the church. I particularly liked the fantasy coffins.

  14. Mooselet says

    I found the fact that there is a gift shop for this museum more disturbing than the fact that there is such a place. The tiny replica hearse’s have tiny replica coffins! That’s more creepy than any exhibit.

  15. Sydney S. says

    I’m going to have to agree iwth #20 on this one.

    Really, I don’t think this is too much more creepy then exhibits about mummifications, and those tend to have actual dead people.

  16. druidbros says

    I want to see the exhibits for….
    1] Pope Leo VII (936-9) died of a heart attack while having sex.

    2] Pope John VII (955-64) was bludgeoned to death by the cuckolded husband of the woman he was having sex with at the time.

    3] Pope John XIII (965-72) was also murdered by an irate husband during the act.

    4] Pope Paul II (1467-71) allegedly died while being sodomized by a page boy.

    Wow those catholics know how to have a good time.

  17. says

    Catholics love worshiping the bones and blood and sundry relics of their gore-splattered history. I’m surprised they didn’t rip the brain out of JPII’s corpse and pass it around to be licked and kissed and served with crackers and wine.

  18. says

    While I agree Christianity is a death cult, this particular web site seems to belong to a museum devoted to funerary practices, so the focus on death is occupational rather than faith-based.

  19. llewelly says

    You’d think if Jesus had thought these popes were any good, he’d have brought one or two of the best back from the dead to serve again by now. Clearly he’s not impressed.

  20. yoshi says

    I have to agree with Thanatos – a 5 second observation of this website appears to be related with how funerals are conducted in society and history. Its occupational if maybe a bit lame. The problem I have is that it took 24 comments for someone to get that and not go off half-cocked like PZ did… But whatever … i guess a real analysis would get in a way of pouring on the hate one someone else’s beliefs…

    (for the record I am an atheist)

  21. says

    (1) It’s hard to beat Benedict IX when it comes to infamous popes. He was elected pope at a young age due to family connections, enjoyed the papacy just a bit too notoriously and publicly and got deposed; reclaimed the papal throne after ousting his successor; got bored and sold the papacy to a relative; became restive during retirement and seized the papacy a third time. A notoriously bad pope.

    (2) The Bad Popes by Chamberlin is a treat. Fascinating history.

    (3) Nothing is too disgusting when it comes to Catholics and relics. If you’re really, really lucky, you might get an actual chunk of a saint’s body. Finger bones are especially convenient because you can put them in pretty little jewelry boxes (called “reliquaries”) and hang them on the wall or around your next. Putting corpses on display is standard practice, although it’s just a tiny bit embarrassing when the “miracle” of an “incorrupt” body requires massive cosmetic intervention (as with the late Padre Pio, a notorious fraud who was recently canonized anyway).

  22. Jeff Satterley says


    Nice try, I call Poe.

    You people are making this sh*t up.

    I’m starting to think the Catholic Church might be one big, two thousand year old Poe. It’s too bad I got out too early, before I learned all about the conspiracy.

  23. xeric says

    Recently there was a story here in Chicago about the humerus bone of a saint being in town. I commented on the story on the local media’s website about the weirdness of worshiping body parts. I was denounced by angry Catholics (they seem to be angry quite often) because they claimed they don’t “worship” said relics, it’s “veneration” or “adoration”. Whatever. They also attribute magical powers to the body parts. No one denied that. They weren’t happy with my mention of the holy Foreskin of Jesus of which there were reputed to be several (up to 18 according to one count) in various churches in Europe. That’s quite a feat, even for Jesus.

  24. Badger3k says

    re #12 – to be fair, there are other religions that do not have that fear/disgust of death. The Buddhists that came into Japan took care of the death/funeral rites (etc) since that was not an issue with them (although they did still see the death itself as an unclean thing, even if they had no problem with the body afterward). Other cultures across the world also had a thing for dead bodies (Egyptian and Incan cultures are two – perhaps mummification aided that?), and there have been paleolithic houses that had the bodies buried underneath the house, perhaps as a way of honoring the dead. It’s not only the Christians that had this death-focus. As for relics, other religions have them as well (again, Buddhism comes to mind, but there are others), and at least the Christians don’t eat the dead literally as some religions would have you do.

  25. Badger3k says

    re:31 – that reminds me of the difference between praying to many gods and praying to many saints. Supposedly there is one, but all I see is weasel-words to try to hide their polytheistic tendencies from themselves. Pray to a saint to intercede with the supposedly omniscient and omnibenevolent deity is a bit ludicrous. I want to get Joe Nickell’s book on the relics of christ, which relates all that foreskin business and more. I guess good ol’ Jesus was REALLY blessed in that department to have so many foreskins). Jesus Holmes? “That was no donkey, that was Jesus!” – – ok, ok, sorry…not. :)

  26. Christophe Thill says

    “American Museum of Funeral History”? Never thought such a thing existed.

    Well, it may be weird, but at least, it’s about something real (as opposed to the Creation Museum). Maybe THEY should have cut a deal with a renowned zoo?

  27. Art says

    Pretty light fare.

    Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, is largely about fear of and glorifying of death. With a premium placed on their sect’s martyrs deaths being more extreme and painful than others.

    If you want to immerse yourself in the death cult you can do better than concentrating on the popes. Look at the emphasis they place on the deaths of saints and martyrs.

    A couple of nice ones from above:
    Slow roasted martyrs.
    Or eaten by worms and lice. Lovely.

    Most people think that snuff and torture porn media from Mel Gibson and like the “Saw” series are a new concept. Christians have been playing those cards for a very long time.

  28. Brian English says

    At the recent tax-payer funded, World Youth Indoctrination Week in Sydney, they flew out the bones of some saint who probably fondled kiddies way back when as the patron. It was ghoulish to see a bunch of blokes in frocks escort a plain wooden coffin into a church and act all awestruck…

  29. KTodd says

    I don’t think it’s only the bodies of popes they’re creepy with, either.

    My father’s family are catholic and have a standard response to the death of a family member: they keep the body, in an open coffin, in the house for a week or so until the day of the funeral. Someone has to sit with the deceased 24/7 – you’re not allowed to leave them without company at any point. I remember having to spend an entire night sitting up with the body of my dead uncle…

    Anyway, when I asked if this was just a weird dad-related family thing I was told that all catholics do it. It’s tradition. Right up there with covering the windows, stopping all the clocks and taking mirrors off the walls.

    I think they’re just creepy about death. Period.

  30. Phelps says

    There are all kinds of weird traditions associated with the death of popes. Allegedly, they hit the pope on the head with a silver hammer 3 times, calling out his name each time, just to make sure he’s dead. Though the authenticity of this has been questioned. See:

    And according to the wikipedia article on Embalming, there were various mishaps associated with Pius XII: “Pius XII’s (pope 1939-1958) botched embalming by a charlatan doctor — which only sped up the rate of decomposition — led to his body turning black and his nose falling off while lying in state, and the body disintegrated in the coffin. The Swiss Guards stationed around Pius XII’s body were forced to change shifts every ten to fifteen minutes since the body’s odor caused some guards to pass out.”

  31. Kitty says

    You really are a squeamish lot! This is a funeral museum for dog’s sake! What do you expect it to have on display, the history of the plough?
    The human species has been fascinated with death for millennia, burial ritual is part of our long history and may even be one of the traits which makes us human.
    Personally I’m intrigued that they buried the popes with funereal goods, after all I thought the right hand man of god would be well set up in heaven and wouldn’t need to hedge his bets by taking along his own stuff.
    There’s also the ‘Regito’ of course, a document signed by all those present at the coffining, which spells out in detail the pope’s life and works and then is placed with the body. Just in case god forgets who he is?
    Not quite as interesting as having your brain extracted through your nose and a good mummification , but come on now you have to admit to being a little intrigued!

  32. Flerndip says

    I keep expecting to spot Herbert West in these old photographs, wielding a bright green glowing syringe.

    That makes me wonder which of today’s most prominent mythologies most closely matches the fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

    The Thing on the Doorstep = Another Dead Bishop on the Landing?

  33. Richard Harris says

    I’da thought all you USAnians would’ve had enough of contemplating Pope’s noses during Thanksgiving to want to see any more assholes.

    I guess dead turkeys are best served up cooked & on a platter.

  34. Sili says

    “American Museum of Funeral History”? Never thought such a thing existed.

    It’s not all that surprising. Death is Big Business in the US (rivalled only by Japan, I think). Noöne else spends so much on coffins, embalmings and whatnot. There seems to be an innate fear of death so that they try to stave off decomposition for as long as possible. In vane, since all that formaldehyde results in saponification pretty quickly.

    It’s prolly no coïncidence that the whole “get frozen now and live again in Teh Future!!” deal is primarily an American phenomenon too.

  35. says

    I’m sure everyone has noticed that Christian feast days in honor of the saints are generally based on the saint’s death day instead of his birthday. Morbid!

  36. Cowcakes says

    Phelps #38 “Allegedly, they hit the pope on the head with a silver hammer 3 times, calling out his name each time, just to make sure he’s dead.”

    I thought they lined up all the dead Popes to use as a macabre xylophone. I’m probably wrong but the thought picture does hold a certain attraction.

  37. MH says

    Zeno #29 “Finger bones are especially convenient because you can put them in pretty little jewelry boxes (called “reliquaries”) and hang them on the wall or around your next.”

    I’m reminded of a pertinent sketch from the first episode of the first series of Blackadder:

    Baldrick: Moving on to relics, we’ve got shrouds, from Turin; er, wine from the wedding at Cana; splinters from the cross (his finger gets a sliver from one of the splinters); er, and, of course, there’s stuff made by Jesus in his days in the carpentry shoppe: got pipe racks, coffee tables, coatstands, bookends, crucifixes, a nice cheeseboard, fruit bowls, waterpoof sandals… (picks up a piece of wood that’s partly carved) Oh, I haven’t finished that one yet.

    Percy: But this is disgraceful, My Lord! All of these are obviously fake!

    Edmund: Hah, yes!

    Percy: But, but how will people be able to tell the difference between these and the real relics?

    Edmund: Well, they won’t! That’s the point!

    Percy: Well, you won’t be able to fool everyone! Look (he takes a red cloth from his sleeve): I have here a true relic.

    Edmund: What is it?

    Percy: (unwraps the cloth) It is a bone from the finger of Our Lord. It cost me 31 pieces of silver.

    Edmund: Good lord. Is it real?

    Percy: It is, My Lord. Baldrick, you stand amazed.

    Baldrick: I am — I thought they only came in boxes of ten. (he opens a box of finger bones) (??????????)

    Percy: What?!

    Baldrick: Yeah, yeah — fingers are really big at the moment. Mind you, for a really quick sale, you can’t beat a nose. For instance, the Sacred Appendage Compendium Party Pack: you get Jesus’ nose, St. Peter’s nose, (??) of St. Francis’ nose, and (picks up a pair of false breasts) er, no — they’re Joan of Arc’s.

    Percy: (he’s been getting more and more angry and surprised as he’s seen all these `relics’) That little bastard verger! I’ll show him! (exits into hallway) I’ll show him!


    The rest of the script can be found here.

  38. MH says

    “I thought they lined up all the dead Popes to use as a macabre xylophone. I’m probably wrong but the thought picture does hold a certain attraction.”

    I’d love to see Patrick Moore play that. It would be a truly beautiful surreal moment.

  39. apophenia says

    The National Museum of Funeral History really is a Houston treasure, for the fantasy coffins alone. I mean, there are coffins shaped like giant chickens, fish, and shallots! That is some seriously awesome stuff!

    The NMFH is housed in an actual mortician’s college, so of course it’s heavy on the embalming-and-burial stuff. The pope thing is a new display, funded substantially I think by Catholic money. However, it would be one of a set of displays of different rituals, including the histoy of American embalming practices (see a mockup of a Civil War embalming tent!) and Victorian mourning customs (jewelry made with the hair of the dead!). It’s an interesting place to ponder the weird ways we cope–or not–with death.

    It is, maybe unconsciously, very focused on Christian funeral customs (fantasy coffins notwithstanding) in that wide-eyed “but isn’t everyone Chrisitan?” kind of way. Still, it’s a pretty fascinating place, and well worth a visit if you’re ever down Houston way.

  40. moother says

    PZ your surprise surprises me…

    death is the integral part of going to heaven for whackaloons so of course there is emphasis on it.

  41. BMcP says

    As I do love history I would actually be pretty interested in seeing this exhibit. I am not a Catholic, but from a historical perspective, the history of the popes and the Catholic church interest me greatly, since both had such a profound influence on European history.

  42. Banana says

    Hey for the Christian death is the entrance into LIFE. Life with God forever, what should be celebrated more than that?”

  43. llewelly says

    They weren’t happy with my mention of the holy Foreskin of Jesus of which there were reputed to be several (up to 18 according to one count) in various churches in Europe. That’s quite a feat, even for Jesus.

    Naw. It’s like the loaves and the fishes. Simple miracle, really. And he created so many, it’s remarkable only 18 survive. The Romans fed thousands of Jesus foreskins to the lions…

  44. SteveM says

    Re 17

    Yes, Poe, but in this case it is “reality that is indistinguishable from satire” type of Poe.

  45. SteveM says

    Not entirely off topic: There was a show on the National Geographic channel last night about “The search for Santa Claus” (or some such title). It actually concerned itself more with the biography of Saint Nicholas and not so much his evolution into the “jolly elf at the north pole”. A major part of the story was the disposition of his bones since his death.

  46. RedReplicant says

    Geesh. Can we really criticize a museum for educating people about customs, even if we don’t agree with those customs? Pretty much every culture in the world has some sort of weird death ritual. Christianity is no exception and I don’t think it’s fair to consider that one of its faults. Really anything that you might do with a dead body could be considered weird, including cremation.

    Someone above asked how the worship of saints is different from just having a pantheon. There has been some very good literature produced by secular sources on this subject, e.g. Peter Brown’s *The Cult of the Saints.*

    One of the most frustrating things for me is when my fellow non-believers start complaining about aspects of Christianity that they don’t understand or haven’t researched. Sure, you can just assume that they’re crazy because they believe something unlikely, but it doesn’t make your argument more credible. It also shows a sad lack of concern for something that is fundamental in the study of history of any kind– *why* people do what they do. There are no simple answers to that question.

  47. Sarcastro says

    Ewwww, I don’t want no horrible and nameless pope disease. Last time that happened I ended up soaking my ya-yas in kerosene for a week.

  48. Xyz says

    So it’s a funeral museum running an exhibit on the funeral rituals of Popes. Would you be equally creeped out if it was an exhibit on the funeral rituals of the pharaohs? Should we non-believers throw up our hands in disgust the next time someone puts King Tut on display and discusses the religious context of his mummification and burial?

    You’re being horribly closed-minded. It’s stuff like this that has me really on/off about subscribing to Pharyngula’s feed. I just switched it back on after a 3 month hiatus hoping to find something interesting, only to be promptly reminded why I turned it off.

  49. hje says

    How about a more lively topic for a web site: Sex lives of the popes.

    Re: Xyz.

    There is a morbid fascination with death in traditional Catholicism. Saving bodies or parts of saints so they can be put on display is more than a little creepy–more like tales from the crypt. The Egyptians never intended that their pharaohs’s corpses be put on display.

    “It’s stuff like this that has me really on/off about subscribing to Pharyngula’s feed.”

    You really spend time deliberating this kind of decision? Suggestion: Just delete the bookmark and get on with your life.

  50. Peter says

    Phelps @38. When Pius 12ths body was carried in state the jolting made the decomposition gasses burst forth in very loud farty noises. Which I would imagine was not at all funny to the Italian kids dragged by famiglias to see Pio dozeno sent on his way.

  51. Silverwhistle says

    I love mummies and funeral customs and such! It’s fascinating anthropology, and mummies/relics are as exciting as dinosaur fossils (“Wow! That person is x-hundred years old! And I can actually see him/her!”) Just because they’re part of a weird religious organisation doesn’t diminish their interesting historical/scientific qualities!

    John XII was the Pope who died in flagrante, in his 20s. Personally, I think, if you’re going to have them at all, these are the sort to have: hip young party animals who don’t take the day-job too seriously, and are neither former members of Hitler Youth or heads of the Inquisition – erm, Congregation for the DOctrine of the Faith!

  52. says

    @ Ornery Pest #45: That’s because in past centuries, people didn’t attach a lot of importance on the date of birth of an ordinary man or woman. But when someone had become a saint, you can bet, his or her date of death was carefully recorded.

  53. Wowbagger says

    Would you be equally creeped out if it was an exhibit on the funeral rituals of the pharaohs?

    Did the pharaohs belong to religion still affecting people today that claims to celebrate and promote human life but is – as illustrated by this display – obsessed with death?

    What makes this worth commenting on is the hypocricsy, not the ick factor.

  54. Julie Stahlhut says

    Sus wrote: There are exposed pope mummies at the Vatican.

    I was totally unprepared for that when I visited St. Peter’s Basilica last year. Innocent XI is perhaps the most prominently displayed of the pickled Popes. Somehow I completely missed seeing John XXIII. (The basilica really is a stunning place, even for us infidels, although I could have given the room temperature Popes a miss.)