Fast Facts: Papal Funeral

A look at the protocol of a papal funeral.

— The funeral and burial must be held between the fourth and sixth day after the pope's death except for unspecified "special reasons," according to rules established by Pope John Paul II (search) in 1996. The College of Cardinals is to meet at 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. EDT) Monday in a pre-conclave gathering expected to set a date for the funeral.

— The funeral will be held at St. Peter's Square (search). World leaders and other dignitaries are expected to attend. Many cardinals, including those who will select the new pope, also will be at hand.

— The lead celebrant will be the dean of the College of Cardinals (search), currently Joseph Ratzinger, a German, and the ceremony is expected to last more than two hours. During one part of the Mass, the ceremonial Swiss Guards, who wear distinctive purple-gold-and-red uniforms, kneel and dip their halberds with their right hand and salute with their left.

— At the last papal funeral, that of John Paul I in 1978, the pontiff's coffin was placed atop a rug in front of the altar. Cardinals, wearing red vestments and white miters, processed in order of seniority and took their seats.

— During the last two funerals, a book of the Gospels was placed atop the coffin to symbolize a return to humility.

— Most popes in recent centuries have chosen to be buried beneath St. Peter's Basilica. After the funeral, their lead-lined coffins — which can weigh close to a half ton — were carried through the "door of death" on the left side of the main altar in the basilica. A single bell is tolled. The coffin is lowered into a marble sarcophagus and covered by a huge stone slab. The Vatican has not clarified whether Pope John Paul II seeks such a burial. There is speculation that the Polish-born pontiff could choose to be interned in Krakow's Wavel Cathedral alongside Polish royalty.