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Family noted for embalming popes not involved this time

ROME—For many years, when popes died, the Signoraccis embalmed them.

The family, which dates its mortuary experience back to 1870, handled the preservation arrangements for Pope John XXIII in 1963, Paul VI in 1978 and John Paul I, also in 1978.

But this time the request didn't come. "It's tradition—we're surprised," said Massimo Signoracci, a member of the latest generation to run the family mortuary. "They must have called someone else, someone from outside, because I am the only one in Rome."

The Vatican has said nothing about the subject.

The Signoraccis have handled the bodies of some of the most important people in Rome. In addition to the three popes, the family took care of the body of Aldo Moro, the former prime minister who was kidnapped by terrorists and found murdered in the trunk of a car in Rome in 1978, and the former King Farouk of Egypt, who died in exile in Rome in 1965.

But the family's relationship with the Vatican conveyed a special prestige—though not without glitches.

Pope Paul VI's body, for example, began to decompose as it lay in state in the heat of August 1978. "The features became less sharp and the face took on a greenish tinge," according to an Associated Press report at the time.

The Signoraccis were also in the middle of a controversy over the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 that spawned a theory that he'd been murdered.

An Italian news report, apparently erroneous, suggested that they'd been called to the Vatican an hour before the pope had died. The report fueled visions of a dark conspiracy.

Two elderly Signoracci brothers, both now dead, came across as deeply befuddled about the time and sequence of events when interviewed by author John Cornwell for "A Thief in the Night," a 1989 book that debunks the murder theory.

Cornwell eventually concluded that John Paul I died of natural causes that could have been prevented had he had better medical care and that the Vatican's failure to provide timely and accurate information contributed to the conspiracy theories.

"Listen," Ernesto Signoracci told Cornwell at one point, "we're a bit confused about the times and the hours because we've been fixing up the corpses of popes since John XXIII."

But not this time.

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(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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