Displaying the Famous Political Dead

Embalming Chemicals, via Wikimedia

Embalming Chemicals, via Wikimedia

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.

Lenin Preserved with his Embalmers, via Nature

Lenin Preserved with his Embalmers, via Nature

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…

45 responses to “Displaying the Famous Political Dead

  1. Not all dead politician’s bodies are displayed and celebrated as heroes or latter-day saints.
    Britain had a long tradition of displaying the bodies of the state’s political enemies as a warning to others.
    Guy Fawkes, who is the most well-known of the plotters who attempted to blow up King James I and his Parliament at Westminster in 1605, was caught red-handed the night before, tortured, then hung, drawn (eviscerated) and chopped into quarters, which were put on public display in different parts of the country. His head was put over one of the gates into his home city of York, known as Micklegate Bar.

    Click to access 1GuyFawkestrail.pdf

    The body of the executed King Charles I missed this public indignity and was buried in the royal St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, where the executed Mary Queen of Scots is also buried. Political commoners’ bodies are hacked about then displayed, executed political royals are discretely buried with dignity.

    • It is interesting that display can be reverence or disgrace: as I mentioned with Gaddafi and Hitler, for political figures it can easily go one way or the other depending on public opinion or the opposition. Thanks for more examples of the reverse occurring… maybe I’ll do a blog post on just that!

      • If you are doing a blog post this one will interest you.
        Another interesting example is the treatment of the body of the English Roman Catholic martyr St. John Southworth, who was also hung, drawn and quartered in 1654 as a traitor, during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (he was a Catholic priest when this was treason).

        His body is now displayed, dressed in priest’s vestments, enshrined in a glass case at Westminster Cathedral, London, in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs. St John’s remains are the only complete relics of any of the Catholic martyrs of England and Wales.

        His butchered corpse was bought after the execution by the (Catholic) Duke of Norfolk and given to the Spanish Ambassador, who ensured the remains were buried at Douai in northern France, which is where he had been ordained as a priest to serve in England. His body was hastily reburied in secret during the French Revolution and its whereabouts lost, but in 1927 his body was rediscovered during some building work, and in 1929 transferred to England and enshrined in the Cathedral when he was canonised as a saint.

        The body in its glass case: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Westminster_Cathedral_IMG_4612.JPG

        Biography http://areluctantsinner.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/st-john-southworths-feast-begins.html

  2. Katy, you made reference to the “American Association of Embalmer”. The reference should be from The American Society of Embalmers. I’m the Executive Director and very much like the idea that our information is shared with others.

    • Oops! Will definitely update that- sometimes my fingers don’t work as fast as my brain! Out of curiosity, has the society ever made a statement or have an opinion on more permanent forms of embalming?

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  4. So fascinating! I was in Moscow last summer while Lenin’s Mausoleum was closed to the public, and I was so disappointed! (Along with plenty of native Russians.)

    I think still displaying bodies political figures may start out as a way to work through grief, but continues as a matter of convenience or nostalgia. It seem logical to imagine people expecting to display a body for a certain amount of time for people to come see, but then after a certain point, removing the body becomes a strong statement against that person or the regime they represented. In the case of Lenin, it probably doesn’t help that his mausoleum is on Red Square and a really convenient tourist deal now.

    Interesting post; thanks!

  5. I understand the idea behind displaying the body as a warning, but I’d hope society has progressed beyond that in many countries. As for long-term display, I’ve never understood the idea. Lenin is dead, accept it and bury him.

  6. Interesting piece. Are most important figures eventually made of wax? What about wax museums too?


    • There is rumor that many are wax- and given all the chemicals they may turn that way eventually. However, all argue that these are still the dead individuals.

  7. Interesting post, thankyou. Look up Riccardo Galeazzi the famous Italian physician who had a fracture named after him and who attended Pope Pius XII. He was given the job of preserving the Pope’s body and made a total cock-up by using very unconventional techniques, the corpse putrefied very rapidly indeed and exploded during a procession. Perhaps you should follow with a blog on famous failed embalmings! Tony

    • Ugh! Hate to think of that mess during the final procession. Did the Vatican pay for his services? Riccardo probably had his name crossed off St. Peter’s book into heaven.

  8. One thing you can’t say about the internet is that it’s boring. I stumbled upon this post and learned a ton. Not only what the article offered but that there is an area of concentration in mortuary archeology! Go figure. Keep up the nice work.

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  10. A very interesting and thought provoking article. If I may however, I would like to point out a small typo in your first paragraph. It reads “…sanitation, presentation and presentation.” I assume it to mean, “sanitation, preservation and presentation.”

  11. i believed that hitler well – appreciated the consequence after he received the news of the death of his allies (and his revered inspirer), Benito Mussolini who was caught, promptly shot dead and flogged in public,

  12. Very interesting article. Thank you! I didn’t know Ferdinand Marcos was enbalmed and put on display as well. Being a Filipino, this perked my interest.

  13. My favorite embalmed political leader is definitely Eva Peron. Her embalmed corpse was kidnapped three years after her death, was taken to several other countries, and only returned to Argentina almost twenty years later. Then they touched it up and redisplayed her before finally she was buried again…in a bunker.

  14. I thought this was a very good piece! I really enjoyed all the little facts you told throughout it. You said a lot of things in one very short little article, and it was awesome! I had no idea that Hitler did not want his body displayed for all to view him and I agree with your last statement that displaying our Political leaders gives the opposite effect than if we were to display our saints. It is a more negative display of humans. How did Wilhelm von Hofmann discover formaldehyde? Can’t wait to read more of your posts!!

  15. Hitler’s body they never found, the skull fragment that was on display in Germany they did DNA testing on it, and it was found to be a woman’s skull

  16. It’s a strange but fascinating topic and as you rightly evaluated, public opinion and circumstance play a huge factor in how a political figure would be displayed after his or her death.

    The idea behind Lenin’s preservation came from the Russian Orthodox tradition that saints bodies were said not to decay. Subsequently to uphold his infallibility and create a mystique, he was put on display for all to see.

      • Public manipulation & persuasion at it’s best right there… capitalising on a traditional belief to venerate one of their own.

        Talking of legacies, Maggie Thatcher has certainly divided opinion, well she always divided opinion but her death has really brought it to the fore. Here in Ireland she is probably one who won’t be venerated!

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  18. I’ve seen Ho Chi Minh’s body and it doesn’t look like a particularly good job to me. He looks really very dead indeed.
    St John Southworth used give me the terrors when I was a Catholic kid visiting Westminster Cathedral. I should add that his hands and face are covered with metal and the rest is under his robes so it’s not clear what state of preservation he’s in. I hadn’t heard the story of the role played by the Duke of Norfolk before, and as the title was in abeyance between 1572 and 1660, there actually wasn’t a Duke at the time of Southworth’s martyrdom in 1654. I was always told the pieces had been collected and reassembled by the nuns of Tyburn, but as I see from their website that they weren’t founded until the 19th century, this can’t be true either.
    The distinction between honouring a leader or saint and triumphing over an enemy is the difference between a relic and a trophy. In both cases, possessing such a thing signifies power, plus a relic is often a money-spinning tourist attraction.

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