Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2005]
My son came home last night, and told me that when the Pope passes away, to ensure his death, he is struck on the head with a silver or gold hammer three times.
Is it true that when a pope dies, they perform a ritual where someone strikes his head with a silver hammer? Some say it's an old practice that has been abolished and others say that they still do it.
Origins: The Vatican customs surrounding the passing of a Pope and the election of his successor seem mysterious to outsiders, both because of their arcane nature and because members of the general population gain exposure to them only at those rare instance in their own lifetimes when a Pontiff dies. Consequently, just about any act said to be part of those rituals seems somewhat believable. One particularly odd belief asserts that after the Bishop of Rome passes on, he is struck in the head with a silver hammer to confirm that he is well and truly gone and not merely sleeping soundly.
There is disagreement as to whether such a procedure is part of the parting process. We do know that once a Pope appears to have left this world, a pronouncement is made in Latin that he is dead, with this news certified by a physician. The camerlengo (chamberlain) calls out the pontiff's baptismal name three times over the corpse in an effort to prompt a response. Failing to get one, he defaces with a silver hammer that particular Bishop of Rome's Pescatorio (Ring of the Fisherman), along with the dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters. The pope's quarters are then sealed, and funeral arrangements are begun by the camerlengo.
Some believe after the deceased has failed to answer to his name being called three times, and before his ring and seals are defaced, he is tapped on the forehead with a small silver hammer. That intelligence has been sped along by Stephen Bates, a journalist who penned a widely quoted-from article on rituals attaching to the passing of Popes.
For instance, in 2003 The Guardian quoted Bates thus:
But the camerlengo is still thought to use a silver mallet to destroy the papal ring and seals, symbolizing the end of the dead pope's reign. Symbolism aside, though, the act provides a safeguard against forgeries.
(These days, given western society's passion for embalming its departed loved ones, the chances of being prematurely buried are almost nil, because none so preserved stand a chance of surviving the process.)
In the wake of the death of Pope John
One final note for those who are pondering the coincidence: the Beatles song "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" has no connection to papal traditions involving a silver hammer. As Steve Turner noted in A Hard Day's Write, his volume on the origins of Beatles songs:
Paul said at the time that the song "epitomizes the downfalls of life. Just when everything is going smoothly, 'bang, bang' down comes Maxwell's silver hammer and ruins everything."
Last updated: 5 April 2005
Bates, Stephen. "Ailing Pope Names New Cardinals." The Guardian. 29 September 2003.     Turner, Steve. A Hard Day's Write.     New York: HarperCollins, 1994. ISBN 0-06-095065-X (pp. 190-191). The Associated Press. "The Process to Mourn the Pope and Elect His Successor." 2 April 2005. The Guardian. "Corrections and Clarifications." 25 November 2003.