Two million mourners expected at biggest ever state funeral

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At least two million people, and what is expected to be a record showing from heads of state, are likely to make the late Pope's funeral this week the largest ever ceremony of its kind. Vatican officials organising the solemn and highly elaborate ceremony do not believe it can be held before Thursday.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, delayed the announcement of a general election, which he was due to make today, for at least 24 hours out of respect for the Pope.

Meanwhile, Clarence House insisted that the royal wedding between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles would take place as planned on Friday despite potential clashes with the Pope's funeral.

The Pope's long illness evidently has given the Holy See considerable time to think ahead about how to organise an event that Vatican officials previously considered it bad taste to discuss publicly. The Camerlengo, or chamberlain, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, the 78-year-old Spanish prelate in effect in charge of the Vatican until a new pope is elected at the Conclave of cardinals, arranges the funeral in accordance with the Pope's wishes.

He already has formally ascertained the death of John Paul and filled in the death certificate, breaking the pontiff's ring and seal and sealing off his private study and bedroom in his apartment above St. Peter's Square. The Pope's body has been dressed and was displayed to the Vatican diplomatic corps and the Roman Curia, the central government of the Church, before John Paul is laid out in St Peter's Basilica today for the faithful to file past and venerate.

La Stampa, the Italian daily newspaper, reported that the Pope's body would not be embalmed to prevent decay during its veneration. The newspaper quoted the mortuary technician in Rome dealing with John Paul's body before burial, Massimo Signoracci, as saying he would treat the body with "a light 'preservation' with injections". Signor Signoracci is the heir to the two Signoracci brothers who dealt with the corpses of popes Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I.

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, will preside over the Missa Poenitentialis to be celebrated by all other "Princes of the Church". According to Holy See protocol, which is rigidly adhered to in the tiny Vatican city state, the funeral marks the start of the Novendial, or nine days of funeral celebrations and mourning.

The apostolic constitution, the Universi Dominici Gregis, set up by the Pope himself in 1996, states that the funeral is to "take place, except for special reasons, between the fourth and sixth day after death".

St Peter's Square and surrounding streets were blocked yesterday with traffic for hours as tens of thousandsattended an outdoor suffrage Mass for John Paul II, underlining the logistical headaches facing authorities in the Eternal City in preparing for the funeral proper.

A special mixed commission is being set up between the Holy See and the Italian state to manage the event. At least two million people were expected to attend the funeral. Italian newspapers said the Vatican got off to a quick start with the formal rites traditionally carried out after a pontiff expires.

After the funeral the Polish pope's body will be closed inside a coffin with an outer wall of walnut, a middle lining of lead and a third, interior lining of cypress tree wood. There has been speculation that John Paul might have wanted to be buried at the Wawel Cathedral at Krakow in his homeland. But Vatican sources say that he almost certainly will be buried in the grotto under St Peter's basilica, where nearly all pontiffs have been laid to rest.