Does a deceased pope get hit in the head with a special hammer to make sure he's actually dead? No, that's not true: The Vatican called the claim a "myth" in 2003. An expert told Lead Stories the ritual has not been performed since possibly 1878 and that the hammer shown in the social media posts is used to open a holy door in papal ceremonies.
The claim appeared on Twitter (archived here) on Twitter on January 1, 2023. It opened:
I found out today that the pope gets hit in the head with this Warhammer 40k ass hammer when he dies to make sure he's actually dead
This is what the post looked like on Twitter at the time of writing:
(Source: Twitter screenshot taken on Thu Jan 12 23:40:22 2023 UTC)
The Guardian published a story in 2003, prior to Pope John Paul II's 2005 death, that made the claim about the hammer:
After the pope dies, an event confirmed when a senior member of staff strikes him on the forehead with a silver hammer and calls his baptismal name to make sure he is not just asleep, the cardinals will gather within a fortnight in the Vatican to deliberate in great secrecy on the choice of his successor.
The archived version of the article has a denial from the Vatican about the claim:
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Tuesday November 25 2003
The article below included the assertion that the corpse of a Pope is ritually struck on the head with a silver hammer to ascertain that there is no sign of life. According to the Vatican, this is a myth.
The correction is not visible in the web version available as of January 12, 2023.
Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, told Lead Stories via telephone on Jan 12, 2023, that the story about the hammer being used for certification of death of the Roman pontiff is "not true, that is no longer used." He said the last time it was possibly used was in 1878 when Pope Pius IX died. Martens explained what the current tradition is as of 2023, which does not include hitting the pope on the head with a hammer:
There is a ceremony that is being used, the first one after the Pope dies and his private chapel basically to ascertain the death of the Roman Pontiff, but it's more a prayer service than anything else. It is clearly certain if it ever has been used it has not been used for the past 100 years.
Using a reverse image search, the photo of the hammer with gold and silver decorations in the photo posted on Twitter was found on reddit in October 2020. The poster claimed they found it in the Vatican Museum. It made no reference to the hammer being used to hit a deceased pope in the head to determine if they were dead. The same image was also posted on reddit in September 2020.
Martens explained what a hammer that ornate would usually be used for:
It's clear that that hammer is not a hammer that's being used to ascertain the Pope's death. It is the one that's being used for opening the Holy door.
Lead Stories reached out to the Vatican for comment and will update the story when a response is received.