Dead Popes; Do They Still Hit Them On The Head With a Hammer To Make Sure They're Dead?
Following the death of a pope, the camerlengo has the duty of “safeguarding and administering the goods and temporal rights of the Holy See” during the interregnum. He manages the church until the election of the next pontiff, oversees the conclave, and gets a nifty sceptre covered in red velvet.
The camerlengo also verifies the passing of the pope after the doctor has pronounced his death. In the past, this was done by tapping him on the head three times with a ceremonial hammer and calling his baptismal name in his native tongue. If he showed no response, the camerlengo announced “the pope is dead” and took possession of his ceremonial ring, which was often then smashed with the same hammer along with official seals.
At a time when death could be difficult to determine and burial alive was a real possibility, this was not a quaint custom but a genuine precaution. (There’s a persistent legend that Thomas a Kempis was buried alive.) It was probably last performed at the death of Pope St. John XXIII.
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.
The above example dates back to the mid-20th century. It is made of ebony and gilded silver and measures 22x9x2 cm. From The Minnesota Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.