Preservation of a body is an interesting phenomenon, whether it be the evanescent embalming at a funeral home to prevent the body from decaying at the wake, or preservation for hundreds of years as is the case with Rosalia Lombardo in the Palermo catacombs. Embalming is a three-fold process of sanitation, preservation and presentation. While the process has ancient roots and is found throughout the world, the modern technique was not possible until the Civil War, when the high number of bodies needing to be shipped over distances necessitated research and led to Dr. Thomas Holmes discovering a method of arterial preservation. This was later improved in 1867, the August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde. Primarily it involves the replacement of fluids and blood with chemicals to prevent putrefaction.
Embalming is primarily meant to allow the deceased to remain in a stable condition long enough to allow mourners a chance to see the body. It is thought that viewing the deceased can be helpful in the mourning process. Grief is defined as a the process of making an unwanted event psychologically real. Therefore, seeing the body aids in the process of acceptance of death as we can see the deceased individual and interact with them in their new state (According to the American Society of Embalmers statement on the topic).
So why then are some bodies on display permanently? Is this still part of the mourning period or does it represent something larger? Perhaps it is a modern version of the creation of relics or shrines? Here are some examples of deceased individuals who remain on display today.
Vladimir Lenin: This is probably the most famous body that is still on display today, and has been for the past 90 years. He is located currently in the Lenin Tomb near Red Square. Lenin died on January 21, 1924, and was immediately slated to be on display. Over the years he has had three different coffins of increasingly grander styles, and three different mausoleums. He was only removed from display once in October 1941 when Moscow was thought to be in danger of invasion by the Nazis. The embalming treatment has to be consistently updated and the body is always being taken care of to prevent further changes. While the Russian government once paid for this, it is now funded by private individuals. Recently there was a debate on whether to finally bury Lenin– but popular opinion prevented it. (Via Wikipedia)
Mao Zedong: The former Chairman of the Communist Party of China died on September 9, 1976, and by May 24, 1977, was on display in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. The body is on display for limited periods of time, and it is even rumored that it has been replaced by a wax sculpture- though this is fervently denied by the government. One interesting fact about Mao Zedong was that he strongly believed that everyone should be cremated to prevent taking up space, ironic since his burial takes up more space than most! (Via Wisegeek)
Other political leaders on display includes Ho Chi Mihn, Ferdinand Marcos, Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong-Il. For more on these displays, check out this article by CNN on the topic!
Hugo Chavez: Sadly, display doesn’t always go according to plan. When Chavez died on March 5th this year, it was determined that like other leaders, he would be put on display. He was the leader of Venezuela for 14 years, and would remain on display so people can pay their respects at a military museum. However, the decision to do this was made too late and the body had already begun to decompose. To save it, it would have required a 7 month procedure in Russia. His body was buried at a military museum. (Via Sky News)
Of course display of a political corpse is not always a sign of reverence. In October 2011 we saw Muammar Gaddafi’s body displayed in a different fashion– as a way of disgracing and displaying power over him. Christopher Hitchens wrote it was “satisfying to see the cadaver of the monster and be sure that he can’t come back”. Perhaps it isn’t that different- maybe this is just a different way of finding solace. One of Hitler’s fears was that he was going to be displayed after death, and asked to be cremated.
An interesting argument for the continued display of political leaders is that the lack of decay is similar to the incorruption of Saints, and is a continued show of the power they held in life. The display of political figures decaying may then be the opposite…