Hit enter on the google search ‘embalmed and displayed’ and I guarantee you will instantly regret it.
I visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi in March 2015 at the very start of a three-month trip around Vietnam and have been trying to write about the experience ever since. There was something so unnerving about it all, the freezing cold mausoleum, the poker-faced teenage guards, the pilgrims dotting their eyes with hankies and, of course, Ho Chi Minh himself, lying there looking as solid as if he was moulded from wax but as fragile as if he was cut from paper.
I’ve never been to an open casket funeral or been asked to identify a body and as a result I’ve never seen a dead body before. Never. Until March 2015, that is. Although I’m not sure you can really count Ho Chi Minh as a dead body as such considering he’s unable to do the only thing dead bodies are ever expected to do, which is to quietly decay.
Embalming Is Wrong. But Why?
I’m struggling even now to put my finger on exactly what it is that bothers me about the practice of displaying embalmed corpses. It could be my fickle atheism (fickle in that I’m changing teams on my deathbed if there’s even the hint of an afterlife). Not believing in God makes the voyeuristic act of looking at human remains even more distasteful – like it’s just waste – but then again, if there’s no spirit or soul to speak of then what does it matter?
Perhaps for all my atheism I do believe that a human body, once inhabited by the consciousness of a man, is in some way sacred and for those who are still alive to use that body as a symbol to be worshipped is exploitative. Maybe I expected some kind of epiphany the first time I saw a dead body, a memento mori however vague and indecipherable that would cleanse my doors of perception and allow me to fully see my own mortality. Maybe I’m just squeamish.
A saint of sorts, preserved for future generations to worship, a morbid piece of political propaganda or just a decaying corpse that should be hygienically disposed of – whatever you think of Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body it’s worth remembering that he’s not the only one to have undergone this process.
Need a body embalmed? Call Russia.
There are at least five embalmed former communist leaders on display around the world and many more have been embalmed for short-term display before being buried. An organisation known as the Center for Scientific Research and Teaching Methods in Biochemical Technologies, located in Moscow, Russia is responsible for the maintenance of almost every embalmed leader on this list and performed the original process on a number of them.
A group of top anatomists, biochemists and surgeons have made it their life’s work to ensure that the bodies of the embalmed leaders keep looking better with age and considering the chemicals involved they’ve probably sacrificed the youthfulness of their own biological matter in the process.
As you would expect, photography is banned in mausoleums so few photos exist of these leaders on display but in 2013 The Washington Post put together a jolly ‘photographic guide’ to this fairly macabre phenomenon.
If I reproduce photographs from a newspaper here without permission I may have my eyeballs stabbed out and my typing fingers cut off by the copyright thugs but I think I can post one or two thanks to the fair use policy.
1) Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh is like the superstar of the embalmed leaders gang. By the time Ho Chi Minh was embalmed in 1969, the ‘Lenin Lab’ as they were known had made huge strides in their experimental embalming processes. As the Vietnam War was still raging at the time of Ho Chi Minh’s death, the Russian embalmers were forced to carry out the delicate procedure in a cave in North Vietnam. Today, Ho Chi Minh still makes regular trips back to Russia to undergo a three-month long beauty regime.
2) Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin died in 1924 and his was the first corpse to undergo the experimental embalming process pioneered by Russia’s biochemical tech company. As Lenin’s body has now been dead for over 90 years the challenged involved in keeping him ‘fresh’ require constant innovation. As an article in Scientific American reported,
To maintain the precise condition of Lenin’s body, the staff must perform regular maintenance on the corpse and sometimes even replace parts with an excruciating attention to detail. Artificial eyelashes have taken the place of Lenin’s original eyelashes, which were damaged during the initial embalming procedures. The lab had to deal with mold and wrinkles on certain parts of Lenin’s body, especially in the early years. Researchers developed artificial skin patches when a piece of skin on Lenin’s foot went missing in 1945. They resculpted Lenin’s nose, face and other parts of the body to restore them to their original feel and appearance. A moldable material made of paraffin, glycerin and carotene has replaced much of the skin fat to maintain the original “landscape” of the skin.
3) Mao Zedong
Chairman Mao has been on display in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square since 1977. Due to the Sino-Soviet split the Chinese struggled to find scientists able to create an air-tight coffin for Mao and various makers competed to build a crystal coffin that could adequately house the former leader of the Chinese Socialist Party.
Here’s picture of Chairman Mao when he still had blood in his veins and an image of him in his crystal coffin.
4) Kim il-Sung
North Korea’s founding president Kim il-Sung was embalmed in 1994 by the Russian embalming A-team and laid to rest, under the glare of spotlights, in Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Formerly the official residence of North Korea’s head of state, the palace was transformed into a mausoleum in 1994, a renovation that is thought to have cost up to $900,000.
5) Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-Il followed his father into the glycerine bath in 2011. On Dec 17th 2012, one year after his death, Kim Jong-il’s preserved body was unveiled to select visitors and in early 2013 his mausoleaum was opened to the public.
For a picture of Kim Jong-Il lying in state, see this Telegraph article.
A few others…
Joseph Stalin died in 1953, at which time he was embalmed and put on display alongside Vladimir Lenin. Just eight years later, as Russia underwent a process of de-Stalinization and the new first secretary of the communist party, Nikita Khrushchev, tried to quash the cult of personality around the famously brutal dictator, Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum and buried in secret.
The Venezuelan president died on the 5th March 2013, although there are various conspiracy theories that suggest he died earlier, perhaps up to two months earlier, but his death was covered-up by his political power as they schemed to stay in control. Originally plans were put in place to embalm Hugo Chavez and put him on permanent display but the decision was made too late and only a partial embalming could go ahead. Chavez’s remains currently reside in a sealed tomb in the Revolution Museum in Fort Montaña.
Eva Peron, wife of Argentinian president Juan Peron, was embalmed in 1952. The plan was to construct a huge statue, bigger than the Statue of Liberty and place her embalmed corpse on display at the base of the monument. Before this could happen a military dictatorship took power in Argentina and Eva Peron’s corpse disappeared for 16 years. In 1971 Eva’s body was exhumed from a crypt in Milan – it gets weirder – and taken to Spain where her former husband and his new wife installed it in their dining room and took over the maintenance themselves. Finally, Eva’s body was buried in a secure tomb in Buenos Aires.