Dovetails, the Pope's Coffin and the Unidentified Craftsman
Popular Woodworking, October 2005

The morning after Pope John Paul II's funeral, John Darrow, Frank Klausz's finisher, asked Klausz, "Did you see the pope's coffin?" Klausz hadn't. It has big, big pins and tails, just like you do them!" Darrow said.

Using pictures of the coffin to determine scale, Klausz made a replica pine corner. Then he examined the joinery in the pictures using a magnifying loop. "It was easy to tell nobody measured or used angle gauges," Klausz says.

Finding out who built the highly publicized coffin should have been easy, but it wasn't.

The quest first led to the editor of the Catholic magazine America. He said to contact the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who said to contact the Vatican Embassy in Washington D.C. who said to contact the Vatican press office who said they don't handle requests "for such small details." Several other publications and an organizer of a funeral fair in Poland didn't respond.

Several Vatican experts did research for us and found nothing. The Catholic News Service also couldn't provide detailed information.

Two experts who were in Rome asked several people in the city but no one knew anything. Rev. Steven M. Avella said Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, "the pope's dear friend and personal secretary" knows but doesn't respond to these types of requests.

Wendy J. Reardon, author of "The Deaths of the popes" (McFarland & Co.) and part-time teacher of exotic dancing (yes, exotic dancing) suggested contacting Alan Howard who runs St. Peter's Basilica's web site. "He's got some powerful friends in St. Peter's, so perhaps he can ask them," Reardon said. Howard gave us the address of Archbishop Piero Marini, who planned the pope's funeral. John-Peter Pham, author of "Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession" (Oxford University Press) also suggested we contact Marini. So we sent a letter to Vatican City.

Surprisingly Marini sent a letter back. After translating its few sentences we learned this: The coffin was built in Vatican City.

While this news was welcome, the lack of further information was unfortunate. So the quest took some alternate paths. Travel writer Rick Steve's consulting department was unable to provide information about Vatican woodshops. Brian Boggs, a chairmaker in Berea, Ky., provided contact information for Thom Price, a gondola maker in Venice who didn't respond.

But Mark Marsay, a London, England-based refinisher and tool restorer with family in Italy recalled hearing that the coffin was made by Vatican Museums' restorers and conservators. He also didn't think it was a solo effort. But he couldn't confirm anything.

Our quest ended when we called Vatican Museums: Our deadline had approached and no one on the other line spoke English.

Although much remains unknown, we did uncover some interesting facts and suspicions:

  • The cypress coffin was adorned with a carving of a cross and the letter "M," which stood for "Mary, the mother of Jesus."
  • Along with the pope's body a sealed lead tube called a rogito containing a sack of bronze and silver Vatican medals, and a brief biography written in Latin were placed in the coffin.
  • The pope was buried in three coffins. The innermost cypress coffin was placed inside a zinc coffin, which was placed inside another wood coffin (some sources say the wood is elm; others say it's walnut or oak).
  • Charles Garnette, an Indiana-based woodworker who plans to build a replica of the cypress coffin, surmised from pictures that the wood is about 1" thick. Garnette says there is speculation by Vatican historians that the cypress was recycled wood, perhaps old door planks. He also believes the coffin actually was built in 1981, when Pope John Paul was shot.

Still, it's too bad we don't know who built the coffin. Such skill and dovetail methodology deserve recognition and exploration. PW

—Kara Gebhart Uhl