Preserving National Bodies

by by Mimi Dwyer

Hugo Chavez is dead. Cancer took him, finally, after months away from his country, after surgeries in Cuba, after the obligatory press photos—Chávez reading the late-edition newspaper, Chávez bald, Chávez sick, yes, but still alive, with the date to prove it, flanked by his daughters, a smile on his face.

Hugo Chávez is dead, but he is not dead. The last of his prolific Tweets reads, “I go on, anchored in Christ and confident in my doctors and nurses. Towards victory always!! We will live on and we will overcome!!!” The punctuation is characteristic; so is the sentiment. The man was nothing if not vivacious. He extemporized for hours, surprised his supporters with fully furnished apartments. On his weekly state-televised program, Alo Presidente, Chávez belted folk songs on the good days and berated his cabinet members into tearful submission on the bad.

Hugo Chávez is dead, but his body remains. Since his passing on March 5, two million have paid their respects to his corpse at the Venezuelan military academy. At his funeral his successor and second-in-command, Nicolas Maduro, laid a replica of Simón Bolívar’s sword over his casket as thousands of mourners looked on. Bolivian president and admirer Evo Morales was in attendance; so was Sean Penn. Mahmoud Ahmadenijad clasped the hands of Chávez’s grieving mother as Maduro led the crowd in chanting Chávez’s name. Commentators wondered whether Maduro could take the helm of a regime so dependent on its cult of personality. In some ways, he doesn’t need to—in a televised eulogy, Maduro promised that Chávez’s body would be “surrounded by crystal glass forever.” He will be embalmed and put on public display for as long as his flesh permits. In the tradition of Vladimir Lenin and Ho Chi Minh and Eva Perón and Kim Jong-Il, the Venezuelan populist will be immortalized in death for all to see.

The death of a despot should be cause for celebration, the death of a hero and luminary a national trauma. Hugo Chávez was neither of those things. He antagonized the US and mounted a radically leftist, perhaps antiquated platform for his people—but he was no ruthless despot.

In some ways it’s easier with the villains—rulers like Idi Amin, the sadistic Ugandan absolutist, are laid to rest in secretive, ill-attended funerals, their bodies hidden in unmarked plots or else destroyed. Saddam Hussein was hanged in a closed room on an American military base called Camp Justice; you can hear his neck snap in the YouTube footage. In the hours after Muammar Gaddafi’s assassination, his corpse lay supine and mauled on display in a meat shop, where onlookers kicked it and spat on it. Eventually, two appointees of the new Libyan regime buried the dictator and his son in a classified desert location, where they melt into the earth.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, the adage goes—don’t speak ill of the dead. Figures like Chávez pass, and their threats are nullified. This is a man who called Gaddafi a “revolutionary and martyr” and fed state oil money into his election campaigns. Venezuela’s poor loved him fervently though he led the country into food shortages, electricity rations, and rampant inflation. But he also decreased the country’s inequality, spoke for the marginalized—his legacy is ambiguous. Besides, even the worst tyrants soften in memory, grow into heroes, especially in countries nostalgic for better days. Their funerals take the first step towards writing—or revising—their histories.

So how does a country inter the remains of leaders who marred its soil and murdered its people? How does it commemorate the ones who lifted it up and taught it to be proud? And what becomes of the bodies of those who did both?

Vladimir Lenin

Died 21 January 1924

Buried 28 January 1924

Lenin was, for the most part, gone long before he died. After a 1918 assassination attempt he suffered a series of strokes that left him paralyzed and bedridden. His role in the Soviet government declined; he was a figurehead and symbol, a fallen icon in a wheelchair. He deteriorated. Rumors circulated—he had syphilis, he’d been poisoned. Just before he passed, he requested that no memorials be erected in his honor. Lenin wanted to enter the earth like a common man.

But his government did not oblige. At the funeral, mourners passed through the streets in a subzero processional, tears freezing on their faces. Maybe that’s why the Russian cosmists, who believed in the immortal human and the eternal power of the body, clamored to cryogenically preserve Lenin for future resurrection. Preparations were made. The requisite equipment was imported.  But the government didn’t go through with it.

Instead, Soviet neuroscientists removed Lenin’s brain to examine it and isolate the source of his genius. The lead morphologist in the case, Oskar Vogt, determined that the pyramidal neurons in the third layer of Lenin’s cerebral cortex were abnormally large and hence responsible for his brilliance. The government had its doubts.

Lenin’s body was embalmed and placed on display in a bulletproof glass sarcophagus coffin in Moscow’s Red Square, where it remains today. Periodically, to preserve the taut skin of his sleeping face, he’s immersed in a glass bathtub filled with embalming fluid for a month. His pyramided mausoleum is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors have bombed it twice.

This summer, more than twenty years after the fall of Soviet communism, culture minister Vladimir Medinsky mounted a campaign to take Lenin’s body off display and entomb it for good. According to some polls, less than half of the Russian population wants to keep the memorial in operation. “Maybe, indeed,” Medinksy said, “many things in our life would symbolically change for the better after this.” For now, the leader’s body lies bathed in pink light in a deep internal chamber, lines of viewers passing through, leaving flowers.

Benito Mussolini

Died 28 April 1945

Buried 2 September 1957

When his regime finally fell, Benito Mussolini was executed by firing squad alongside his mistress. They were loaded into a truck and discarded in a Milan plaza amidst a heap of other bodies. The people smashed their faces in, defiled their bodies, assailed them with bullets. Partisans strung them up by their toes on meat hooks. They hung there all night, until the government yielded to the pleas of a horrified archbishop and placed the couple in a state morgue. By that point, The New York Times reported, Mussolini’s body had become “a shrunken, ruined, virtually shapeless thing.”

Mussolini was deposited in a common grave, no fanfare, and remained there for a year until a group of fascists exhumed his body in the dead of night. “Il Duce is again among us,” read a letter left with the open coffin. “The time will come in which Benito Mussolini…will parade through the streets of Italy, and all the roses of the world… will not be enough to give extreme greetings of the country to this great son.” The fascists placed his body in a 40” by 24” trunk, too small for any human that hadn’t been desecrated, mangled. They shuttled it from convents to monasteries around the country with the aid of priests sympathetic to the cause.

When Italian authorities recovered the body they made its new resting place a national secret. Fearing an uprising, they told his family that the body would be returned “in due time.” Its location during those years remains a mystery.

In 1957, the government exhumed Mussolini once more, presented his corpse to his pleading wife. His family gave him a Catholic funeral in the stone tomb he’d built for himself, 160 miles north of Rome. Italian newspapers ignored the reburial, and, The New York Times reported, “government quarters voiced confidence that the Neo-fascist emotionalism would soon fade and that no ‘Napoleonic’ myth was in the making.”

The government quarters were wrong. Today, far-right politics hold increasing sway in Italy. Mussolini’s face graces wine bottles and t-shirts and his grave draws huge swaths of tourists, between 80,000 and 100,000 people annually. A fascist Catholic priest gives sermons there every day.

Eva Perón

Died 26 July 1952

Buried 10 August 1952

Eva Perón never ruled Argentina. She was its First Lady, the wife of Juan Perón, the country’s military president or its dictator, depending whom you asked.

Evita was a B-Movie star gone politician who rose from nothing to the most powerful woman in Argentina, maybe Latin America. She was ruthless. She was beloved.

She succumbed to cancer at age 33. Twelve people died and two thousand were injured in her fourteen-day military processional, a ceremony previously reserved for presidents. Even now, the anniversary of Evita’s death is a national day of mourning and an eternal flame burns for her in Buenos Aires—shortly after her death, Argentina appointed Perón the Spiritual Leader of the Nation, a position created especially for her, and which she holds in perpetuity.

So she would not leave them, so she would live forever, or so they could cling to their power without her vibrancy and charisma, the Peronists removed the blood from Evita’s body and replaced it with glycerin. She was embalmed and covered with a hard plastic shell; plans were drawn up to make a memorial larger than the Statue of Liberty. But before its completion, a military coup overthrew the Perón government and Juan fled, leaving his wife’s body behind. The junta stripped her body from the government office where it had been displayed. They made it a crime to utter her name, even to hold a funeral image of her pale countenance. In secret, Argentines would pray to her body for its numinous curative powers.

The junta tried to hide her body, stuffed it in the drabbest of offices, no windows, underground, but somehow the people always found it. Flowers and candles abounded, like they sensed her, like she spoke to them.

Eventually, the wary and exasperated junta shipped her to Milan, buried her secretly under a false name. Pope Pius XII read her burial rites. For sixteen years she moldered there, her encasement damaged but her frail skin intact. When they found her, she’d only decomposed a little. Juan Perón, exiled in Madrid, rejoiced. They were reunited. She would live with him in his mansion. So durable was Evita’s encasement, in fact, that Juan would pack her corpse with him on trips for company and inspiration.

When Juan returned to Argentina in 1973, though, he brought his new wife instead of his old. The new woman, Isabel, would be president one day. She’d been a nightclub dancer, a nobody, like Evita. She had none of her charm and all of her ambition.

When Juan died a few months later she summoned the corpse from Europe. She needed it. In the palace she would stand over the body for hours, eyes closed, hands raised, absorbing her power.

Mao Zedong

Died 9 September 1976

Buried 18 September 1976

Chairman Mao’s body crumbled while he still lived inside it. His heart failed, his lungs collapsed. He could barely eke out his own urine. Jiang Qing, his fourth wife, refused to heed doctors’ orders as he lay on his deathbed. She insisted he be turned to his right side, though they said he could not breathe that way. He turned, grew blue. His organs failed.

Chinese tradition holds that leaders should be cremated immediately after their deaths. The leader of Red China should have been sprinkled back into the loam—news outlets waited for the official announcement. But something was different with Mao.

The first sentences of his eulogy, given by prime minister Hua Kuo-feng, emphasized the centrality of Mao’s body to his legacy: “Chairman Mao devoted his whole life to and is linked by flesh-and-blood ties with the masses of the people,” he said.

The doctors botched the embalmment job. Mao’s face swelled, distorted by formaldehyde. An emergency plastic surgery corrected the features before the leader went on display in his Tianamen Square mausoleum, styled off of Lenin’s tomb.

But four years after the burial, China’s new reformist government issued a decree prohibiting the erection of any new memorials to Mao. “There have been too many portraits, quotations and poems of Chairman Mao in public places. This number is lacking in dignity,” it read. It wanted to convert his countless memorials into public service buildings.

It didn’t. He remains there, corrective, propped, though murmurs circulate that he’s made of wax.

Augusto Pinochet

Died 10 December 2006

Buried 12 December 2006

Chilean despot Augusto Pinochet died awaiting trial for the atrocities committed by his government. He was old and decrepit and Chileans clamored for his blood—“We are really sorry he escaped without punishment,” one former prisoner told The Calgary Times, speaking from a mouth left mostly toothless by torture.

Chile denied Pinochet a state-sanctioned funeral, but the Military Academy of Santiago issued him a massive sendoff. Twenty thousand attended the service, filed past his body. Some fainted out of grief, some from relief. The coffin had a plexiglass window onto the dictator’s face—he was really in the box.

A boy named Francisco Prats waited hours to see him. Prats’ grandfather had been head of the military in the Allende government that Pinochet overthrew in 1973. Pinochet exiled Prats’ grandfather to Argentina, let him live there for a year, cowering, then blew his body to pieces with a car bomb in broad daylight on a Buenos Aires street.

Prats sidled up to the body, looked at its closed eyes. Then, he spit on its face.

Chaos ensued. Guards grabbed Prats. Pinochet’s son gave a furious and uncomfortable eulogy in his father’s defense. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Don’t speak ill of the dead. The funeral ended, Pinochet was helicoptered away and cremated in private, where no one could mar his tomb. They say that’s what Pinochet’s secret police did with the bodies of those he murdered: burned them, then sprinkled them from helicopters over the earth. The country is a gravesite. The bodies are lost, buried namelessly or turned to dust.

Raul Zurita, the Chilean poet, writes of the Atacama Desert where Pinochet held his prisoners, the desert that they never left:

Speak of the whistle of Atacama

the wind erases like snow

the color of that plain


A postscript: in Miami, Fidel Castro has died every few weeks since he took power in 1959. The detractors to his revolution—conservative Cuban emigrants, the deposed elite—can’t wait for him to die. He is always dying. He is not dead, and for that reason, a generation of Cubans refuse to return to their home country, even to visit. Their land is no longer their own. They’ve been extracted from the national body, an absence left in their stead. What does the absence of a people mean to the presence of a corpse? And what of a body that refuses to become one?

“I die tomorrow and my influence may actually increase,” Castro told Ignacio Ramonet, the coauthor of his autobiography, in 2005. “I may be carried around like El Cid—even after he was dead his men carried him around on his horse, winning battles.”

MIMI DWYER B’13 stood over the body for hours.