Question: Is it true that popes are buried in three different coffins? What is the significance?
Answer: It is true that popes are buried in three different coffins! When a pope dies, usually his actual burial takes place between the fourth and sixth day after his death. The burial follows a funeral Mass, presided over by the Dean of the College of Cardinals. In terms of the burial itself, the church performs what is termed as The Ritual of Three Coffins. Each of these coffins carries its own symbolism and significance:
The Cypress Coffin
The innermost, a cypress coffin, holds the pope’s body as well as a copy of the eulogy given at the funeral Mass. It also holds three bags of coins: one of silver coins, one of gold, and one of copper. The number of coins in each bag represents the number of years a pope served. The simple wooden coffin made of cypress signifies that the Pope is an ordinary human being like everyone else, and is buried like a common man. The coffin is sealed and wrapped with three silk ribbons before being placed in a lead casket.
The Lead Coffin
The lead coffin, which is soldered shut, is engraved with the Pope’s name and dates of his pontificate, as well as a skull and crossbones. A skull and crossbones or death’s head is a symbol consisting of a human skull and two long bones crossed together under or behind the skull. The design originates in the Late Middle Ages as a symbol of death and especially as an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death found on tombstones. The lead coffin is more durable. Important documents he issued under his seal are also placed in the coffin. The broken seal of office is placed inside the lead coffin by the Camerlengo prior to final closure.
The Elm Coffin
Finally, the lead casket is placed in an elm coffin which is nailed and shut with golden nails. The elm coffin is used to signify the great dignity of the man being laid to his rest, since elm is the most precious of local woods available in Rome.
Before the coffins are sealed, the bishop who is in charge of the pope’s official proclamations reads a list of achievements of the pope, and then the parchment that lists the achievements is rolled into a Copper Tube, and placed inside the casket. When each casket is closed, it is wrapped with two cords of violet silk and sealed in wax with the coat of arms of the chamberlain and the Cardinal Dean. Thanks to this ancient custom, many early documents of the Church have been conserved.
Author: Most Rev. John Osei Bonsu, Bishop of Bishop of Konongo-Mampong Diocese.