‘Dead Pope Hammer’

After former Pope Benedict XVI died, a  January 1 2023 tweet asserted that a “dead pope hammer” existed — purportedly used to “hit dead popes on the head three times” and affirm they decedent is genuinely “dead”:

As is often the case with viral tweets, a seemingly relevant image accompanied the claim. It depicted a white and gold ceremonial object resembling a hammer, but with ceremonial styling.

Fact Check

Claim: “My favourite new factoid is that they hit dead popes on the head three times with a special dead-pope hammer. Just to ensure they are, in fact, dead[.]”

Description: A tweet circulated in January 2023 claimed that a special ‘dead-pope hammer’ is used to hit deceased popes on the head three times to confirm their death. An image accompanying the tweet showed a ceremonial-like object resembling a hammer. The claim has been described as a myth by the Vatican.

Rating: Decontextualized

Rating Explanation: The claim has been disputed by official Vatican statements and multiple other sources, denoting it as a myth. Therefore, it appears to be largely baseless despite its virality on social media.

Another common trait present in the tweet was the absence of a citation for the claim. No information about the image or its source was included, and Google Trends demonstrated “Breakout” levels of popularity for myriad related search terms:

  • “Dead pope”;
  • “The pope hammer”;
  • “Pope dies hammer”;
  • “Do they hit the pope with a hammer”;
  • “Dead pope hammer real”;
  • “Is there a dead pope hammer?”;
  • “Pope hammer tradition”;
  • “Hitting dead pope with hammer,” and;
  • “Pope golden hammer.”

Reverse image search indicated the photograph was shared to Reddit on October 3 2022 — once to r/mallninjashit, and once to r/geology. It looked as if the iteration below was the possible origin point of the image, which the user said was in the “Vatican Museum”:

However, a search for “Vatican Museum hammer” indicated that the image appeared on r/Warhammer40k in September 2020 (shared by the same Reddit user). A top comment on that thread referenced the claim that the hammer’s purpose was to ascertain whether a dead pope was “truly dead”:

A pair of comments on the r/mallninjashit thread pertained to the rumor, with the second comment disputing the claim:

“Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe this was used when the pope was believed dead, but to ensure that he was, he would be struck in the head a few times with a hammer, either gold or silver, to try and elicit a response. And because it’s the Vatican/Pope, they couldn’t just use a regular hammer, shit had to be something out of 40k.”

“No, its just a present from a Chistian Workers-Union in Italy.
Even says so on the handle:
ass. cristiane lavora tori it. = Christian Association of the Italian Workers.”

Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, and a Wikipedia entry about his passing contained a section titled “Rite of Papal Death.” That section was brief, and mentioned the usage of a hammer with respect to the Pope’s ring:

When John Paul II died, the Camerlengo Eduardo Martínez Somalo removed the Pope’s Ring of the Fisherman from his finger, then ceremonially crushed it with the ceremonial silver hammer in the presence of members of the College of Cardinals.

A linked April 2005 BBC.com article, “Pontiff’s seal and ring destroyed,” confirmed Pope John Paul II’s “personal ring and seal” were decommissioned in a “symbolic ritual”:

Pope John Paul II’s personal ring and seal have been destroyed in a symbolic ritual marking the end of his reign over the Roman Catholic Church. The ritual was performed by the chamberlain, or camerlengo, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who is in charge until a new pope is elected.

Cardinals also held their final meeting before the secretive conclave to elect a new pontiff, which starts on [April 18 2005].

A final Mass also marked the end of the Vatican’s nine-day mourning period.

On September 29 2003, The Guardian reported that a then-ailing Pope John II appointed new cardinals. The piece focused on potential future heads of the Church, but mentioned the “pope hammer” rumor in passing:

After the pope dies, an event confirmed when a senior member of staff strikes him on the forehead with a silver hammer and calls his baptismal name to make sure he is not just asleep, the cardinals will gather within a fortnight in the Vatican to deliberate in great secrecy on the choice of his successor.

Small text prefacing the piece indicated that a “following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and Clarifications column [on] Tuesday November 25 2003,” but no correction was visible to anyone looking for information about the “dead pope hammer.” We retrieved the oldest surviving archived copy of the same piece, where the referenced correction — absent from the live version — appeared after the notice.

It explained that the Vatican confirmed the “assertion that the corpse of a Pope is ritually struck on the head with a silver hammer to ascertain that there is no sign of life” is fallacious:

The article below included the assertion that the corpse of a Pope is ritually struck on the head with a silver hammer to ascertain that there is no sign of life. According to the Vatican, this is a myth.

Catholic network EWTN.com published a resource labeled “Interregnum,” explaining the period of time after the death of a pope in office. Benedict XVI took the unusual step of retiring before his death, however, so much of the information did not apply.

A section of the page was titled “What Happens When the Pope Dies,” stating:

The Cardinal who is Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church, is notified. In the presence of the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies, the Cleric Prelates of the Apostolic Camera, and the Secretary and the Chancellor of the Apostolic Camera, he officially ascertains that the Pope is dead. The Chancellor draws up the official death certificate, and the Camerlengo seals the Pope’s bedroom and study. He notifies the Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, and the Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome, who announces it to the People of Rome. The Camerlengo takes custody of the Apostolic Palaces of the Vatican, the Lateran Palace and Castel Gondolpho. After the Pope’s funeral he seals the entire Papal Apartment, having found quarters for those who had resided there to serve the Pope.

A commemorative issue of TIME magazine was published in response to the April 2005 death of Pope John Paul II, “The Path to a New Pontiff.” A piece about the Vatican’s practices began with a reference to the claim (described as a “legend”):

– 1 — “The Pope is Dead”
The Ring Is Broken

According to legend, a Cardinal attending a dying Pope would strike the Pontiff three times on the forehead with a small silver hammer, looking for a response. There was to be no hammer when John Paul II died, just a one-word question repeated three times by a Cardinal: “Karol?” The Pope’s failure to respond to his baptismal name then allowed that Cardinal, known as the camerlengo, to announce, “The Pope is dead.”

The camerlengo is charged with managing the selection of a new Pope. He cannot make new rules and must strictly follow canon law and the written instructions of John Paul II. Among his duties: smashing John Paul II’s ring of the Fisherman, which symbolized his authority, and sealing the papal residence. Later the world’s Cardinals will be summoned to the Vatican.

A contemporaneous mention of the “dead pope hammer” appeared in the “Talk” section of a Wikipedia entry about the Beatles’ song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” It was appended on April 3 2005, when the funerary rites for Pope John Paul II was in the news:

“So the song has no relation to the possibly-apocryphal claim that they hit a dead pope with a silver hammer and say his baptismal name to make sure he’s really dead?”

A 2019 entry on WeirdCatholic.com (“Are Dead Popes Still Hit on the Head With a Hammer?”) focused on the duties of the camerlengo. Its author disputed the Vatican’s assertion the claim was a “myth,” but didn’t provide detail beyond a reference to a book:

The Vatican called this a “myth” when it was reported in “The Guardian” in 2003, but the tradition is fairly well attested. See, for example, The Visible Church, by James-Charles Noonan Jr.

Searching for mentions of the “dead pope” hammer ritual from on or before January 1 2003 returned few mentions of the practice. A Brittanica.com entry (intact as published as of January 2023, a section of “papal conclave”) read in part:

Upon the termination of a pope’s reign, the cardinal camerlengo, the personal representative of the Sacred College of Cardinals in the administration of the church, takes up residence in the Vatican Palace. If the pope has died, the cardinal camerlengo verifies the death by an ancient and elaborate ritual. Traditionally, he gently taps the pope’s head with a silver hammer while calling out his baptismal name three times; upon receiving no response, he pronounces the pope’s death. (In the case of John Paul II, an electrocardiogram was used to confirm death.) Although election to the papacy is for life, in rare cases a pope’s reign terminates during his lifetime, as it did with the resignations of Gregory XII in 1415 and Benedict XVI in 2013.

But a Wikipedia entry titled “Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church” contained what appeared to be a 1903 debunking, in a footnote to the following text:

The Camerlengo is responsible for the formal determination of the death of the reigning Pope; the traditional procedure – abandoned centuries ago – was to call his baptismal name (e.g. “Albine, dormisne?”, meaning “[name], are you sleeping?”).

The footnote read:

According to Hartwell de la Garde Grissell, Chamberlain of Honor di numero to Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius X, who was present at the ceremony of recognition in 1903: “It may also be here mentioned that no such ceremony as striking the dead Pope’s forehead with a silver hammer takes place, and that the exact method of calling aloud his name is not tied down to any determinate form, but is left to the discretion of the Cardinal Camerlengo […] In an original [manuscript] diary in my possession written by Domenico Cappelli of Ascoli, who was Master of Ceremonies to five Popes—Alexander VII., Clement IX., Clement X., Innocent XI., and Alexander VIII.—he states that the custom of calling aloud three times the words ‘Pater Sancte’ was discontinued on the death of Clement X. in 1676.

Furthermore, the rumor and its virality were reminiscent of the notion Catholicism and its rituals are inherently macabre. A TVTropes.com entry, “Creepy Catholicism,” defined the trope and examined its origins:

Creepy Catholicism embraces the description of Catholicism either as simply uncanny and dark or outright criminal and corrupt, especially if compared with other religions. This portrayal is typical of countries characterized by a Protestant majority. Once the Protestant Reformation got going, many Catholic traditions were suppressed. The sort of very bloody and gory art (crucifixes, frescoes of martyred saints, etc.) and ostentatious church decor popular among Italian, Spanish and Latin American Catholics, for example, can be quite shocking to someone from one of the more austere Protestant sects that favor plain wooden crosses and unadorned churches.

So if a writer wants to evoke the sort of mood and creepy factor of a pagan sacrifice or incomprehensible witch-doctor ritual, yet make it Christian, then the creepier sort of Catholicism is the way to go, especially once you toss in some Ominous Latin Chanting.

Truth in Television much of the time, since Catholicism retains many of the “otherworldly” traditions discarded by Protestant churches (the aforementioned Latin chanting, exorcisms, Purgatory, transubstantiation), some of which might seem like something straight out of a horror film to non-Catholics, especially children. That isn’t to say that certain Protestants don’t also have some spooky beliefs and rituals (snake-handling, speaking in tongues, the Rapture, beliefs about demons, some more exorcisms, etc.) … Catholics in general were historically also more open to science and magic (relatively, of course; one can list many heresy cases for either, after all), having an extensive number of scientists and alchemists under its name, so it is a lot easier to demonize Catholicism as demonic or “false Christian” than other Christian groups, which often tend to reject science and/or magic.

Finally, the tweet described the “dead pope hammer” as a “factoid.” A “factoid” is partly defined as “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.”

A viral January 2023 tweet claimed that the user’s “favourite new factoid is that they hit dead popes on the head three times with a special dead-pope hammer … to ensure they are, in fact, dead.” An appended image appeared to have originated with a Reddit user’s visit to the Vatican Museum (in a different context), and the claim itself was described as a “myth” by the Vatican in 2003. One extremely prominent iteration of the claim was a 2003 Guardian article; a correction appended to the page in November 2003 was only visible on archived versions, not the live version visited by curious users in 2023.