In 897, Pope Stephen VI commanded that the corpse of the seven-month dead Pope Formosus be disinterred. His assistants then dressed it in papal garments and a tiara and transported it to the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. They placed the decomposing body of Formosus on a throne and propped it up so it wouldn’t collapse. Stephen called the trial to order, and thus began what became known as the Cadaver Synod, or Cadaver Trial.
The new pope, Stephen VI, convened the trial after accusing Formosus of the crime of perjury. Stephen believed that Formosus had come to power illegally and had also conspired against the former pope, John VIII.
Back in 879, Pope John had excommunicated then Bishop Formosus because of fears that he was plotting to take over the papal throne. When John died in 882, despite the excommunication, Formosus resumed his former position. The Church elected him pope in 891.
The trial and its results
At the Cadaver Synod, Stephen appointed a deacon as Formosus’s “spokesman.” Stephen accused the corpse of reneging on former promises to remain a layman for the rest of his life and never enter Rome again. As can be surmised, Formosus didn’t present much of a defense, and the corpse was found guilty. The pope’s aides then “humiliated” the corpse by stripping it of its papal vestments. Next, Stephen attempted to invalidate all Formosus’s ordinations by cutting off his three benediction fingers. The aides then took the corpse away and buried it in a commoner’s cemetery.
On second thought, Stephen had body re-exhumed, weighted down with rocks, and tossed into the Tiber River. In Roman culture, that was the ultimate disgrace. It was also an effective way to keep Formosus’s relics from being retrieved and used by his devotees. If someone was considered a saint, proximity to relics was vital in obtaining the saint’s help.
Somehow, the decomposing body floated to the surface of the river and either washed up on the bank or was hauled in by fishermen. Not only did Stephen not anticipated that, but some Romans believed that Formosus’s recovered body was already performing miracles.
The Roman public turned against Stephen and threw him in prison, where a few months later someone strangled him to death. In retrospect, if Stephen had left Formosus in his tomb, he would have been infinitely better off.
The rest of the story
That same year, Pope Theodore II reversed Stephen’s verdict and reinstated Formosus to his honored papal status. He then had Formosus reburied in the proper vestments in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Following that bizarre affair, Theodore issued an edict that forbade any future trial of a dead pope.
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending here. A few years later, Pope Sergius III, a former ally of Stephen, reversed Theodore’s decision and reconvicted Formosus. Only, this time he didn’t haul the cadaver out of its tomb to accomplish this.