1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
The election of a new pope begins 15 days after the death of a pontiffImage: dpa

What Happens After the Pope Dies?

DW staff (ktz)
April 3, 2005

After the death of Pope John Paul II, a strict procedure of events is set into motion leading to the burial and election of a successor. DW-WORLD looks at the key steps for the next several days.


Immediately after the pope has passed away, a document known as the Apostolic Constitution drafted by John Paul II himself in 1996 enters into effect. At this point, the pope’s camerlengo (chamberlain) verifies the pontiff’s death by calling him by his Christian name three times. If there is no response, the chamberlain declares “The pope is truly dead.”

The confirmation used to be accompanied by the chamberlain tapping the pope’s forehead three times with a small silver hammer, but the tradition fell into disuse after Pope John XXIII’s death in 1963.

The Vatican follows a strict protocol for dealing with the death of a pope. Word is passed through the Church’s civil service – the Curia – and foreign ambassadors and heads of state are informed officially. Vatican Radio then flashes news of his death around the world. In many cities, churches ring their bells to announce the death.

John Paul II’s body was then removed from his apartment, which was then locked and sealed. A small ceremony takes place during which the pope’s Fisherman’s Ring and papal seal are broken. Today it is a symbolic act, but historically it was designed to prevent impersonation and forgery.

No images or recordings of any kind are permitted to be taken apart from portraits of the pope after his corpse has been suitably prepared to the satisfaction of the camerlengo, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo.

Tausende von Betenden versammlen sich auf dem Petersdom, erleuchtete Fenster des Papst Appartments
Many thousands of people pray in a floodlit St. Peter's Square at the VaticanImage: AP

Burial procedure

Each pope is able to specify his own funeral arrangements. This time, the Vatican will be working to requests drawn up by John Paul II in 1996.

According to experts, the pope’s body is likely to be embalmed and then exposed for the veneration of the faithful – most likely in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Tradition calls for nine days of mourning during which there is a papal interregnum, or interval during which the Catholic Church is without a spiritual leader. Burial occurs four to six days after death – between Wednesday and Friday in the case of John Paul II. The Italian news agency Ansa, however, reported that the interment would not take place before Thursday.

Petersdom in Rom - Vatikan
St. Peter's Basilica in RomeImage: AP

The funeral service will take place in St. Peter’s and heads of state and government as well as religious leaders from around the world will attend.

The pope is expected to be buried alongside his immediate predecessors in the crypt under the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica. There have been rumors that John Paul II wanted to be buried in Poland, but experts say this is unlikely.

How is a successor chosen?

Kardinäle Papstjubiläum
Only those cardinals under age 80 may vote for the next popeImage: AP

The election of a new pope does not begin until 15 days after the death of a pontiff. In the meantime, cardinals from around the world begin arriving at the Vatican to participate in a centuries-old ritual called the conclave (from the Latin cum clave meaning “with key”).

Those cardinals involved in electing the new pope must be under 80. There are 117 eligible to vote for John Paul II’s successor. Before the conclave, coalition-builders begin forging alliances. Senior cardinals who may themselves have little chance of becoming pope can still exert a considerable influence over others.

On the day the conclave begins, the cardinals move in procession into the Sistine Chapel, where they will have the option of holding an initial ballot on the first day. This ballot often serves to gauge the level of support for various candidates. On the next day the voting process begins.

Papst Johannes Paul II gestorben - Archivbild von 1978
The newly-elected Pope John Paul II raises his arms in greeting the crowd from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 16, 1978Image: AP

Throughout the entire conclave, the cardinals are sequestered in the Vatican without outside contact until they choose a new pope.

A two-thirds-plus-one majority is needed for a successful election, otherwise the vote is repeated. If the right percentage is not met after 12 to 13 days, a simple majority vote may be imposed. Cardinals cannot vote for themselves and may be eliminated from consideration if they campaign for support.

Until a successor has been elected, there will be four ballots a day. The ballot papers are burned in an old stove after every second vote. Different chemicals are mixed in to produce black smoke for an inconclusive vote or white smoke for a successful vote, a signal to the public that a new pope has been chosen.

The pope-elect that emerges from the voting is asked whether he accepts becoming the supreme pontiff. If he answer is yes, he is asked what name he wishes to take.

He then goes to the Room of Tears, a small room next to the Sistine Chapel, where he dresses himself in white papal robes, before returning to the conclave to sit near the altar and have a new Fisherman’s Ring put on his finger. Then cardinals then file by to pay homage to the man who from that point on will be considered Christ’s representative on earth.

Michelangelo, Sixtinische Kapelle
The conclave will convene in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo's "Last Judgement"Image: AP

The senior cardinal deacon, at the moment Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, will then step onto the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica to proclaim “Habemus Papam” – we have a pope – and the new pontiff will appear on the balcony to deliver his first apostolic blessing to the world.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Launchers carrying Tochka tactical missiles

Ukraine updates: Kyiv slams Russia's Belarus nuclear plan

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage