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Popes and Royals Lie in Vatican Grottoes

By Alessandra Rizzo
The Associated Press --VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The grottoes where John Paul II will be buried form a cramped underground cemetery beneath St. Peter's Basilica where pontiffs throughout the ages, royals and even an emperor have been laid to rest.

Adorned with mosaics, frescoes, sculptures and crypts, the grottoes lie at the very heart of Christianity, near the site of St. Peter's burial. They are part of underground layers that also include ancient Christian sarcophagi and relics from an ancient basilica upon which St. Peter's has been built.

John Paul's entombment Friday will follow a funeral Mass in St. Peter's Square that is expected to draw heads of government and state, including President Bush, as well as millions of pilgrims. It will be a ceremony filled with centuries-old traditions and elaborate rituals.

The pontiff expressed a wish to be buried in the ground, as opposed to being placed in an above-ground tomb, Archbishop Piero Marini, the Vatican's master of ceremonies for liturgical celebrations, said Tuesday.

A white silk veil will be placed on John Paul's face, while a prayer is read, Marini said. The pontiff will be clad in liturgical vestments and will wear his white bishop's miter on his head.

The body of the pope is placed inside three coffins encased within each other. After the funeral, the first wooden coffin will be placed in a zinc coffin, which will in turn be placed in a wooden casket.

Buried with the pope will be a small bag of commemorative medals issued over the course of his 26-year pontificate, as well as a sealed document featuring a brief description - in Latin - of John Paul's life.

After the funeral, the pope's body is carried through the "door of death" on the left side of the main altar in St. Peter's basilica. A single bell is tolled.

Stairs near the St. Longinius statue near Bernini's canopy lead to the grottoes - a low-ceilinged, crammed space of narrow passageways that lie between the level of the existing basilica and the old Constantine one.

Along a corridor are several crypts holding pontiffs' tombs, mostly marble sarcophagi topped by sculptures of the dead popes. Queen Cristina of Sweden, who abdicated after converting to Catholicism, and Emperor Otto II are also buried there.

John Paul's place in the grottoes will be the crypt where Pope John XXIII lay before he was brought onto the main floor of the basilica. John XXIII was moved after his 2000 beatification because so many pilgrims wanted to visit his tomb.

Unlike the ornate sarcophagi in which many of his predecessors were laid to rest, John Paul's tomb will be a simple stone slab featuring his name and dates of birth and death.

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