What do Hugo Chávez, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong Il have in common, besides giving Karl Marx a bad rap? They’ve all been mummified. Despite the will of the departed, these men have been stuffed full of preservatives and laid into glass coffins so as to have their lifeless bodies on display for generations to come.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died Tuesday, March 5 after a long struggle with cancer. Venezuela’s Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, said of Chávez’s remains, “We have decided to prepare the body of our ‘Comandante President,’ to embalm it so that it remains open for all time for the people.”
Embalming involves chemical and cosmetic treatments to keep a corpse looking fresh long after its natural expiration date. Since the human body starts decomposing immediately after death, the embalming teams have to get to work as quickly as possible. Formaldehyde is the sweet-smelling drink that is used to delay cellular decomposition and kill bacteria. It’s also what makes dead bodies so stiff. Because formaldehyde tends to make the corpses dry, the skin on the deceased must be moisturized. Apparently, Vaseline works as well on the dead as it does on the living. As most embalmings are only for short-term appearances, like open-casket funerals, formaldehyde solution is generally diluted with water. For bodies that are to be on display “forever,” they need a pretty strong cocktail, none of that watered-down stuff. The bodies must also be kept refrigerated. A glass sarcophagus keeps the cold air in, while keeping the germs out.
It seems that Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary founder of the Soviet Union, set the modern mummy trend for sketchy socialist countries around the world. It has been suggested that Comrade Lenin was only preserved by old Joe Stalin as part of the attempt to legitimize his succession to Party Chairman. Lenin died in 1924 and his body was placed in a personal mausoleum on the border of Red Square in Moscow. The body has only been moved once, when the Wehrmacht were closing in on the city in late 1941. In early 1945, when the Germans had been pushed back into Poland, Lenin was brought back to the capital. He was joined by the corpse of General Secretary Stalin in 1953. But, alas, in 1961 Lenin was left alone again, as de-Stalinization sought to bury the bad memories of Stalin’s regime, which included burying Stalin’s frozen carcass. (As a side note, the preserved body of Vladimir Lenin bears a striking resemblance to Jesse Pinkman [Aaron Paul] from AMC’s Breaking Bad.)
Even though these figures have created cult followings, their demands haven’t always been met with obedience. Chairman Mao was among the first to sign the 1956 “Proposal that all Central Leaders be Cremated after Death.” Despite his wishes, Mao was embalmed after he died in 1976. Bereft of life, he rests in the Mao Mausoleum in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square where he receives hundreds of visitors per day.
The personality cults surrounding figures like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao have ensured that their heroic, all-knowing, god-like status follows them into the afterlife. Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, has been proclaimed the country’s Eternal President after his death in 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il, followed him seventeen years later, and has since been deemed the Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are both preserved in Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
I suspect this obsession with the dead comes from the same religious impulse that is freely expressed in Western democracies. In countries where religious devotion is redirected toward the Great Leader, the same sort of saintly idolatrizing shouldn’t come as a surprise. I am bothered by necrophilia in any case. Preserving revolutionary zeal shouldn’t take the form of actually mummifying the revolutionaries.