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Pope John XXIII was Embalmed

By Philip Pullella

ROME, June 3 (Reuters) - When the body of Pope John XXIII was exhumed after 38 years and found to be mostly intact, some people believed it was a miracle. But it was in fact the achievement of a young doctor who was part of a team that secretly inserted a special liquid into the dead pontiff's veins hours after his death. Professor Gennaro Goglia, now 78, still vividly recalls how a Vatican car picked him up at home on the night of June 3, 1963, hours after Pope John died of stomach cancer. Goglia, then a specialist in anatomy at Rome's Catholic University, did not even tell his family where he was going.

In a surreal ceremony, John's body was carried on Sunday in a glass coffin to a new resting place in St Peter's Basilica where it will be visible to the faithful. Goglia was there and saw "my pope" for the first time since that night. "John was a great pope, a piece of history," Goglia told Reuters Television in an interview before the ceremony in his Rome home, where he now reproduces famous paintings and icons. "Finding myself there that night, having to do this job which was, let's admit it, a bit macabre, I was torn between two conflicting emotions. I was honoured to have been called to do this but I also felt the weight of the responsibility," he said.

Before John died he entrusted a custodian to see to his funeral. John recalled that the body of his predecessor Pius XII was preserved so badly in 1958 that the four men standing guard in the Vatican had to be changed every 15 minutes because they could not stand the stench. The custodian, also a doctor, got in touch with Goglia. After they arrived, Goglia and others were taken by private elevator to the papal apartments in the apostolic palace. They had to wait about an hour while Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu made a bronze death mask.

"Manzu walked out and we walked in," Goglia said.

The tools of their trade were rather rudimental for a papal embalmment. A plastic tank was placed on the horizontal crossbeam of a painter's wooden ladder. A plastic tube protruded from the tank and ended in a needle that was placed in the dead pope's wrist. Goglia still has the formula he developed for the liquid -- nine ingredients including ethyl alcohol, formalin, sodium sulphate and potassium nitrate.


"Yes, it was just a body. It didn't have to go to a beauty contest but it was the body of the pope (and so the work had to be done properly)," Goglia said.

About five litres were drip-fed into the arm and another five litres were injected via a big syringe into the stomach. This was to neutralise the putrification caused by the cancer that had ravaged his stomach and killed him. "It took about five or six hours. During the night I looked out the window into St Peter's Square and saw people who had come there to pray," he said. Goglia said he and the others decided that no blood was to be removed from the dead pope's veins but that the liquid would just be added. "What would we have done with a dead pope's blood?" he said, adding that there was a danger that, if extracted, the blood could have fallen into the wrong hands and sold as a relic. "I feel as if he is my pope in a certain sense," Goglia said. "I am the last one of the people who were there that night who is still alive."

In the past five months since it was exhumed, technicians have been working to keep the body preserved so that it could remain visible to the faithful. Since it was exhumed, the body of John was effectively "mummified," as one technician put it. The coffin's glass is bullet-proof and treated to block ultra-violet rays which could damage the body. But Goglia, interviewed again after Sunday's ceremony, said he was disappointed that today's doctors had decided to put a wax mask on Pope John's face. "It made me think of Madame Tussauds (Wax Museum). It could have been handled better," he said, adding that a cleansing solution would have given the dead pope a more natural look.

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